LONG SHOT: Keith Hornsby’s quest to get back in the bracket

Keith Hornsby has taken a winding road to LSU, one that includes a brief trip to the NCAA Tournament. After a year on the sidelines, he’s determined to help get his team back to March Madness.

By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor

Keith Hornsby’s jump shot is anything but orthodox.

It begins inconspicuously enough. Hornsby catches and sets at the hip, launching to a traditional shooting pocket just off his right shoulder. As he elevates, however, the ball crosses the plane of his body.

Most shots stop as the elbow is bent at 90 degrees and the triceps are perpendicular to the ground, making an ‘L’ aligned with the right knee, but as Hornsby’s shot reaches that checkpoint, it continues an upward and central trajectory. It has not yet reached its zenith.

His lower body, meanwhile, twists left, his shooting elbow ascends above his eyes – like he’s sniffing his armpits – before the ball arrives overhead in the middle of his body.

Hold on – it gets weirder. There, ball above head like a child hoisting a trophy, Hornsby briefly hesitates – a glitch in the Matrix, a hitch in his giddy-up, a short stop in an otherwise quick release, as if he is pausing to acquire a target – before flinging the thumb of his guide hand outward and leaving the ball resting unaided in his right hand.

The finish, however, is perfect. The follow through, a powerful flick of the wrist, is textbook. His right elbow locks. His shooting hand goes up, first reaching upward out of the telephone booth, then downward into the cookie jar.

The ball responds. Tight with backspin, it is goal bound, its arc flat but its aim true.

And it’s heading – more times than not – for its home at the bottom of the net.

https://vine.co/v/O2QZjOmPO1F

The ball’s journey is as unconventional as the journey of the man who shot it. Hornsby’s path to prominence at LSU includes stops at the best prep basketball factory in the country, a low-major Division 1 program nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a controversial-but-brief trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Before he was this Tiger squad’s veteran leader, its deadliest perimeter shooter, and its most consistent scorer, Hornsby was a crutch-bound island hopper, a prep school sixth man, a New York City streetballer, and a redshirt scout team player.

Now, Hornsby, in addition to all the aforementioned titles and accolades, is the only Tiger who has ever tasted the NCAA Tournament.

And he’s starving for seconds.

Hoop Dreams

Hornsby has been a shooting perfectionist since he was a toddler.

“I remember being three and shooting on this little basket outside my house,” he says. “I don’t remember how tall it was. Maybe seven feet. I was probably two or three years old. But I made 34 little bank shots in a row.”

Ever since, Hornsby’s been hooked on hoops. He inherited his father’s passion for the game, and while his twin brother, Russell, took to the track – today, he runs the 400 and 4×400 for the University of Oregon – Keith took to the hardwood.

“From the start, basketball was always my thing,” he says.

Except when it wasn’t. In junior high, doctors diagnosed the hoops-crazed Hornsby with osteochondritis dissecans, a rare circulatory disorder in his left foot that emerged as a complication from a previous injury (to this day, Hornsby is still a two-footed jumper, preferring not to leap off his left).

Keith Hornsby CoverOther than a few free throws shot in solitude or with dad, the game Hornsby loved was taken from him.

“I couldn’t run at all for eight months,” he says. “It was non weight-bearing for eight months. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t play basketball how I liked to for a year. At that age, if you can’t run around, it takes a toll on you psychologically.”

So Hornsby filled his time otherwise. He learned how to scuba dive, a feat made possible with a specialized boot for his foot. He traversed the Galapagos Islands – on crutches, of course. He tried, unsuccessfully at times, not to strangle his brother.

But mostly, Hornsby dreamed of playing the sport he loved. He studied fellow Virginia native J.J. Redick, who starred at Duke, emulating his sharpshooting style. He watched another Atlantic Coast kid with a famous dad, Stephen Curry, light up the NCAA from little-known Davidson.

And when he finally got his health back, Hornsby started making those dreams come true. He had grown up in Newport News, Va. attending summer camps at Virginia prep powerhouse Oak Hill – the alma mater of NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Rajon Rondo – located five hours from home in Mouth of Wilson, Va. After two years of high school ball at Hampton Roads Academy, Hornsby tried out for the Warriors and accepted an invitation from head coach Steve Smith to join the prestigious program in 2009.

At first, Hornsby expected to play just five to eight minutes a game in his junior season, as he entered a squad returning talents like Doron Lamb – who later played at Kentucky and is now in the NBA – and Roscoe Smith. But come his Oak Hill debut, hard work and a few lucky breaks found Hornsby in a place he never imagined he’d be in his first game as a Warrior: the starting lineup.

“One of the regular starters was in trouble,” Hornsby admits, “but I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true. It was surreal for me at the time. All my life I’d dreamed of playing at Oak Hill, and I was starting my first actual game for them.”

Hornsby eventually carved out a niche as Oak Hill’s sixth man. He committed to UNC-Asheville during his junior season, and as a senior, he scored 11 points a game against an elite high school schedule and led the team – ranked fourth nationally – in 3-point shooting (50.4 percent), all the while playing alongside the likes of West Virginia guard Juwan Staten, Duke guard Quinn Cook, and former Kansas Jayhawk/current Sacramento King Ben McLemore.

“When I first got there, I was nervous,” Hornsby says. “I came from this little school, and I’m playing with guys like Doron Lamb and Roscoe Smith. But I stood my ground from the start. It was a big learning experience for me. There were some very tough days where I didn’t feel like I was ready, but in the end it was the best decision I ever made in my high school days, because it gave me the confidence.”

Rising from the Ashes

A broken hand, however, hampered his development. He missed the entire preseason, returning to practice just two days before the 2011 opener against North Carolina State. Other than a 21 point effort in game three against Mars Hill, Hornsby struggled to kick-start his career in year one.Hornsby took that confidence to UNC-Asheville, a perennial Big South contender under Eddie Biedenbach by the time Hornsby arrived in 2011. The Bulldog squad that welcomed him returned five senior starters, but Hornsby arrived ready to compete for a spot in the rotation.

“That’s pretty tough as a freshman,” he says of his injury. “I didn’t have any real warmup to the season. It was frustrating.”

He eventually settled in behind Asheville’s “Iron Five,” finding his niche as a reserve off the bench for the conference champs. Just as critically, he progressed as a player by practicing against veterans like J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey.

“The coaches at Asheville taught me so much when I got there, and I was lucky enough to play behind five senior starters, including two all-conference guards, who knew the way of the game,” Hornsby says. “I played against them every day. It was almost like Oak Hill, my junior year all over again. Those guys were strong, experienced guys. It was good learning under them.”

Hornsby averaged 4.0 points per game that year, hitting 36 percent of his threes and averaging 12 minutes per game as Asheville brought its dancing shoes to March Madness. At the time, Hornsby had no idea how special it was to be one of the 68 teams called on Selection Sunday.

“I didn’t know how amazing that feat was until it all started happening and all the noise was made about it,” he says. “All the great things about it when we got there – the private plane, police escort, all the love we got at the hotel, the banners – all those things made me realize this is something I’ll definitely want to go to again.”

As joyous as the buildup to the game was, its outcome was none too pleasant. Asheville, a 16 seed, drew Syracuse, and the fact that they nearly became the first 16 to beat a 1 is made all the more painful by the manner in which the Bulldogs lost.

“That game is pretty controversial,” he says. “I don’t know if anybody here remembers it.”

Hornsby does. A tightly-fought contest in which the two teams battled wire-to-wire was ultimately decided by several late controversial calls that went Syracuse’s way. So, too, did the result. “It was really bad, especially for the seniors on our team,” Hornsby says. “It was a bad way to go out for them.”

Still, Hornsby got his one shining moment, taking two shots in seven minutes, and sinking one of them.

“I can say I scored in an NCAA Tournament,” he says. “Hopefully I can say that again, soon.”

“I Could Really Play”

With the Iron Five out of eligibility, Hornsby approached his sophomore year in Asheville as an opportunity to shine. He spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons playing in organized, NCAA-approved leagues on the streets of New York City, balling in legendary parks like West Fourth Street and The Cage.

“It was a ridiculous experience,” he says. “I was incredibly nervous going up there. I didn’t know what to expect. Let’s be real: I’m this little white dude up there, a target for sure for harassment on the court. But I played well against good competition up there.”

That gave Hornsby the swagger he needed to attack his sophomore year, and attack he did. He swapped his No. 23 jersey for Redick’s No. 4, and soon he was doing his best J.J. impression on the floor.

Hornsby would average 15.1 points per game in 2012-13, burying 40 percent of his threes and 93 percent of his free throws. He saved his best efforts for the best opposition, too, dropping 23 against North Carolina State and 26 against Ohio State.

“Seeing myself be able to that, it was obviously a confidence booster,” he says. “I realized that if I could do it against these guys, I could do it against anybody.

“I never imagined I’d be in that situation, going into Value City Arena and dropping 26 on the Buckeyes. That’s something nobody who knew me before thought I could do. It took a lot of people by surprise and made people realize I was no joke. I could really play.”

Hornsby improved in 2012-13, but Asheville didn’t, failing to get back to the tournament. When the season ended, Biedenbach left after 17 years at the school for an assistant’s job at UNC Wilmington, opening the door for Hornsby to at least consider continuing his career elsewhere.

“It made me wonder,” Hornsby says. “I’d had this big sophomore year. I had those big games against the big schools. When a head coach leaves, those other schools look for possible talent, so I had some feelers from the big schools at that time.

The Call of the Tigers

David Patrick needed a shooting guard.

In the summer of 2013, LSU’s assistant head coach was on the hunt for a replacement for senior-to-be Andre Stringer. So, the well-connected Patrick put in a call to New Mexico assistant Lamont Smith – a former colleague at St. Mary’s – to see if Smith had any suggestions.

Smith did. He told Patrick he had been recruiting this kid from UNC-Asheville who could absolutely stroke it, but New Mexico had just signed its last player for the 2013 class and didn’t have any scholarships available. So Smith recommended Hornsby to Patrick, who immediately secured film of his sophomore season.

And he liked what he saw.

“His ability to catch and shoot the ball quickly stood out,” Patrick says. “When I watched him play Ohio State and St. John’s and North Carolina State, playing against similar competition to what we have in the SEC, I thought his ability to get shots off against those type of teams would definitely translate over here for us.”

After consulting with head coach Johnny Jones, Patrick brought Hornsby in for a visit, and Hornsby immediately hit it off with the team and the staff. Of the many programs that had begun pursuing Hornsby – who, because he committed to Asheville as a junior, missed out on much of the recruiting hullabaloo his Oak Hill peers enjoyed – he said LSU’s pitch stood out from the rest.

“They expressed a need for me,” he says. “They didn’t just say they wanted me. They said, ‘We need you.’ That really stuck with me. I thought I could come into a place where the coaches wanted me to play.”

Plus, Hornsby says, it was down south. It was the Southeastern Conference. It was the big-school environment his brother Russell enjoyed at Oregon. It was LSU.

“The call of the Tigers came,” Hornsby says, “and I haven’t looked back since.”

The Ineligible Perfectionist

Not even during his mandatory redshirt year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules did Hornsby waver from his journey’s new path.

Okay, well, maybe slightly. For the first time since his foot condition in middle school, Hornsby was sidelined for a year, at least from live competitive play, and though he prepared himself mentally for the long road ahead, it didn’t make the journey any easier.

“I knew what to expect coming into it,” Hornsby says. “I knew there would be frustrating times, but the frustrating times didn’t start until games started being played. Leading up to that, I could participate in everything as if I would be able to play. Once the games hit, it hit me. Once they started traveling and I couldn’t go, it was frustrating. I didn’t participate as much in practice – understandably so.

“I didn’t feel like I was a part of the team at the time.”

But Hornsby didn’t mope. Instead, he used his redshirt season to develop his game further. He worked closely with Patrick to perfect his craft.

“I didn’t know the intangibles when I started recruiting him,” says Patrick. “Once you got to spend time with him, and he signed and he got on campus, the thing that was unique to him compared to a lot of kids was his work ethic and wanting to live in the gym and wanting to be a perfectionist.”

Daily 6 a.m. workouts became a staple in Hornsby’s schedule. Extra lifts, too. While the team was on the road, Hornsby was in the gym.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]1,022: The number of minutes Hornsby has logged in 2014-15, more than any other player in the SEC.

61: Hornsby has hit a team-best 61 3-pointers in 2014-15, fourth in the SEC.

12: Hornsby has scored in double figures 12 straight games, the longest such streak on the team this season. [/su_pullquote]

“I didn’t have any choice but to be in the gym – which I wanted to do anyway,” Hornsby says. “I just had to have the long-term view on it: I’m not losing any eligibility with this year. This is a blessing that I can have a whole year to get bigger and stronger and work on my game.”

Practices became Hornsby’s games. He prided himself of being a scout team star. He credits guys like Stringer and Shavon Coleman for making him a better player in practice, but they’d return the credit, if the words of LSU’s head coach are to be believed.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in 30 years of doing Division I basketball,” said Jones. “Whenever there were scout opportunities, he was able to take advantage of it. You knew when he wasn’t on the floor in practice last year. There was a significant difference with the team he was on when he was on the floor versus when he was off.”

As to his work ethic, Hornsby claims it as an inheritance from his father, Grammy-winning musician Bruce Hornsby.

“Even though he’s had great success as a musician, he still works tremendously hard. He’s still hungry to learn how to improve his craft. I find that fascinating. He doesn’t have to do that. He has all he needs to have. But he’s not satisfied until he’s squeezed every little bit out that he can with the instrument.”

Some of it is nurture, but some is nature, too.

“I would feel guilty, I would like I would be cheating myself, with all the facilities and opportunities I have, if I didn’t work at the game,” Hornsby says. “I couldn’t live with myself if I just slacked all the time. I’m just wired that way.”

As a result, by the time the 2013-14 season wrapped up, Hornsby had transformed his game. He was stronger and faster. He was a better ball handler, a more consistent shooter, and an all-around improved player.

“He used that year to really get better,” Patrick says. “He’d be in the gym, and he wouldn’t leave a drill until he made nine out of 10 threes, or nine out of 10 from each area. In his mind, he had to make 90 percent, whatever he was doing. Sometimes we would be in the gym 30 minutes, sometimes it would be an hour or an hour and a half. He didn’t use last year as a wasted year. He used it as a year to get stronger, faster, and shoot the ball better.”

“The way Keith is approaching these last few games, he knows what’s important,” LSU assistant David Patrick says. “He knows what our guys need to do to try to get to the tournament.”
Still, though those improvements were clear to those who had seen them, Hornsby admits it was difficult to keep his newfound abilities under wraps.

“As a competitor, it’s tough when you’re working on your game and you feel yourself improving but you can’t show anybody,” he says.

March Madness

Fast forward a year, and Hornsby has shown everyone who’s watched just how good he is, more than making up for lost time. His 1,022 minutes through 29 games leads the team and the league. He’s the only LSU player to start all 29 contests, averaging 35 minutes per game. To put that another way, he’s played 86 percent of all possible minutes, the third-highest percentage in the SEC. In conference games only, that number is up to 89 percent.

After a year off, Hornsby’s eating his many minutes up, though he admits it was an adjustment – especially at home. Many of Hornsby’s big games earlier in the season came on the road – 24 points at UAB, 23 points at Ole Miss, while some of his stinkers – six points vs. McNeese, none vs. Savannah State – were in the PMAC.

“With a year off of games and playing with new guys, there’s an adjustment period I had to go through,” he says. “Playing home games in front of four times the amount of people than I would’ve at Asheville is a totally different approach. I had to adjust to it. I’m still adjusting to it a little bit. I’ve definitely become five to 10 times more comfortable playing, though, especially at home.”

It shows. Hornsby has reeled off 12 straight games in double figures, the longest streak on the team this year. He’s third on the team in scoring (12.8 PPG) and first in three-point shooting (61 makes, 38.4 percent), but perhaps most importantly to LSU – which enters March squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble – he’s the only Tiger with any NCAA Tournament experience.

“It’s important that he’s had some experience and played in some tough games in the postseason,” says Jones. “But what you want him to share with the guys that haven’t more so is the actual experience and the challenge of getting there and how exciting it is and everything that really goes into it. It’s a difference. That’s something we’ve had Keith be vocal about.”

Before the Tigers played at Tennessee on Valentine’s Day, the team talked about the NCAA Tournament, each player and coach sharing his feelings. And no player’s words carried more clout than Hornsby’s.

“His words about what it was like to be there and have some experiences none of those guys were experienced in – it held a lot of weight,” Patrick says. “Us on the coaching staff, I’ve been there, Coach Jones has been there, and so on, but to hear it from one of your players who has actually been through the fire meant a lot.”

More impactful than what Hornsby says, however, is what he does. And it’s not just the scoring and the shooting. His hustle, his focus, and his leadership speak louder than words ever could.

“The way Keith is approaching these last few games, he knows what’s important,” Patrick says. “He knows what our guys need to do to try to get to the tournament.”

For Hornsby, getting back to the tournament is not all that different from shooting a jumper or finding your way from Newport News, Va. to Baton Rouge. The journey may not be smooth, but the only thing that matters is the destination, be it the bottom of the net or the top of the bracket.

“Despite what comes in the future, this is something we want to work for right now, because going to the tournament will mean something to us for the rest of our lives,” Hornby says. “I know how much I want it. That’s all I need. Win, win, win. It doesn’t matter how. Just win.”

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