By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Time to lace ’em up, folks. Hoops has arrived.
LSU basketball tips off the season on Wednesday with the start of practice. The team will go two to two-and-a-half hours from Wednesday through Saturday, before taking Saturday off and resuming the schedule the next week, as they gear up for a Nov. 7 exhibition vs. Reinhardt and the season opener Nov. 12 against Wofford.
Here are some storylines to monitor as the team gears up for the 2016-17 season.
1. Spotlight’s Off
Last year’s team was under the national microscope from the beginning, thanks to the presence of Ben Simmons. The future No. 1 pick brought media from around the world, literally, to LSU’s gym. Attention, and expectations, are much lower for this bunch. LSU head coach Johnny Jones hopes the underdog mentality combined with the experiences from a year ago for the team’s returning players can help.
“It’s a big difference for us and what this team is about compared to last year’s team and the hype that was brought with last year’s team and everything surrounding them,” he said. “It’s a bit different. But we’re hopeful that the experience that a lot of the guys got from playing on that team will carry over and have an opportunity to impact this season.”
2. Welcome, Freshmen
LSU loses three pros from last year’s team. Tim Quarterman (Portland), Keith Hornsby (Dallas), and Simmons (Philadelphia) are all on NBA rosters in the preseason, leaving big shoes to fill.
Jones has his eye on several guys who can fill in those voids.
At point guard, it seems like freshman Skylar Mays will get every opportunity to start. Mays, who finished his prep career just shy of 1,000 assists, spent four seasons playing with Jones’ son at University High in Baton Rouge, before transferring to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior season.
“One of the reasons he went out there, he wanted to try and possibly play against some better competition and get some exposure that those type of venues allow,” Jones said. “I thought it helped him, I think he’s improved due to the caliber of competition he played against out there and the work load the was put on him.
“I’ve been extremely impressed with him since he’s come back this summer. The amount of time and hours and energy he’s put into the gym alone to try and get better paints a picture of how much better he’s gotten since his high school days until now, and the impact he made taking his team the national tournament last year.”
On the wing, fellow freshman Kieran Hayward could be a ready-made Hornsby replacement. He’s 6-foot-5, has elite leaping ability, and can fill it up from outside.
Sum light ? pic.twitter.com/iBJCYiJASW
— Kieran ⚡️Hayward (@KieranHayward0) October 4, 2016
More critically, Hayward seems to have Hornsby’s work ethic, too.
“I love what he brings to the table for us,” said Jones. “He’s a guy that I would say is like a young, athletic Keith Hornsby. He plays extremely hard, he’s passionate about what he’s doing. He’s worked extremely hard during the offseason, and I think for a freshman, I’m not sure you could have found anybody out there better. If you’d have had that kid in the States, the way he shoots, runs, the way he plays, he’d have been one of the higher rated kids according to the scouting services because of the way he shoots the ball. I can tell you that anytime we have been in any type of drills, running, strength and conditioning stuff, he’s second to none.”
3. Duop, Do Work
LSU’s defensive ills last year kept them from reaching their potential. The team gave up 107.2 points per 100 possessions in SEC play, 11th in the league.
Their biggest area of weakness? Protecting the rim. The Tigers were dead last in SEC play in two-point defensive field goal percentage (54.7) and block percentage (5.3), a far cry from just a year before, when the presence of Jordan Mickey had those numbers at 44.7 percent and 14.1 percent, respectively.
Jones is hopeful that junior college transfer Duop Reath, a 6-foot-11 center, can give LSU a rim protector.
“We’re going to expect a lot from Duop Reath on both ends of the floor,” said Jones. “He’s good on the inside and I even think he’s good on the perimeter because he’s got good feet and good length. He’s a shot blocker along with being able to rebound the ball well, so a lot will be put on his plate early on.”
His junior college teammate, Branden Jenkins, will be counted on at all three guard spots, but he’ll have to get healthy first. Jones has no timetable for his return, after Jenkins underwent surgery for a foot injury discovered during team physicals. Jones likes the edge Jenkins, a Chicago native, will bring to this team.
“Branden Jenkins provides something that we didn’t have last year,” he said. “He’s an energy guy that’s extremely fast and plays tenaciously on the defensive end of the floor. He really takes pride in how he plays on defense. But we’ll probably have to wait and see on him because we’re not sure when he’ll be back full speed.”
4. Tone’s Time
There’s no question who this team’s leader is.
Though he’s just a sophomore, Antonio Blakeney is the team’s pivot point, around whom all things will run. The Orlando, Fla. native caught fire after a slow start last season, averaging 18.6 points per game over LSU’s last 11, including two games of 30+ points.
Blakeney’s back, and if he continues his rate of progress, he’ll give LSU a shot in every game they play.
“It was music to our ears when Antonio Blakeney came out and said he would be returning for his sophomore season,” Jones said. “He had a chance to forego his sophomore season and it showed maturity for him to pull out as quick as he did. He has a chance to make an impact on this team. He knew that there were some areas where he needed to continue to improve and get better and take some of the questions out for his draft status. I think he’s one of those guys you would automatically look to as someone projected to be a leader of this year’s team. I think he’s taken ownership of that.”
- On Craig Victor’s foul troubles from a year ago…
“You want guys like Craig to play as hard as they can, and you’re hopeful it rubs off on his teammates. With the minutes that those guys get I think that if we can put that type of pressure on our opponent night in and night out. You’ve got guys like Epps and Duop who can improve and shown their moxy for playing at a high level. We’re hopeful for other guys like Wade Sims or you name it there’s other guys that play forward spots, Elbert Robinson and those guys it will be a plus for us. They all have to play at the level of Craig.”
- On Ben Simmons’ broken foot…
“We were texting early this morning after his surgery. He said it went well. We’re extremely hurt by that, because he’d have been playing this week…All the time, energy, effort he puts in, waiting for that opportunity, and it just doesn’t happen for him. We’re prayerful he’ll have a speedy recovery and be back much sooner than later.”
- On fans packing the stands without Simmons around….
“That’s certainly what we’re building towards. Each year our fan base has improved and the one thing we will still have on our chest is ‘LSU’ and that’s what our fan base is about. If we continue to play the right way and have success on the floor our fan base will welcome that because that’s what they are. We certainly hope that they are back this year because of what they were able to provide for us. Last year, we went 8-1 in conference play at home last year and our fans played a huge part in that. We’ll certainly need them again this year.”