By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Senior Night will have a different feel Tuesday night at LSU, as the Tigers take on Missouri for the final regular season home game of the year.
For one, everyone involved truly hopes it is, in fact, LSU’s final home game of the season. The Tigers are currently precariously perched on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble; an NIT game would almost certainly see LSU play at least another game in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Two wins this week, including Saturday at Kentucky, would go a long way in building LSU’s NCAA Tournament résumé.
“We are only a game out of first place,” said head coach Johnny Jones. “If you would have told us back in November that with two games left in the season that you will be a game back of first place, I’m sure that we would be pretty excited to be in a position like that.”
Second is that one of LSU’s two seniors, Keith Hornsby, won’t be available to play. Hornsby remains sidelined with a re-aggrivation of a sports hernia injury that cost him the first seven games of the season. The senior, averaging 13.1 points per game and shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point land, is admittedly heartbroken to be out of uniform for the game.
“It’s tough,” said Hornsby. “I always want to play. It being Senior Night, that’s tough. But I’ll still be there doing whatever I can to help them win, whether that’s shaking someone and keeping them on their toes or positively motivating.”
Keith Horsnby says LSU has been the best two years of his life. pic.twitter.com/10llkHBdP8
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) February 29, 2016
LSU’s other senior, Josh Gray, has had a rocky career in purple and gold. The former JUCO scoring champion and Texas Tech transfer has been in and out of the starting lineup, with some truly excellent performances mixed around brief and ineffective cameos.
“I can’t control it,” said Gray. “I can’t do anything about it, except get better every day. Throughout my good times or bad times at LSU, I stayed in the gym and I stayed positive.”
Both Gray and Hornsby, said freshman Antonio Blakeney, have been key influences. Not just for their on court play, but also for the example they set in practice and free time.
“Keith and Josh, both of those guys, one thing they’ve helped me with is work ethic and staying consistent,” said Blakeney. “Even when you’re not playing well, going through stuff, just keeping your same work ethic.”
Third Senior Night wrinkle: at least two underclassmen – and likely more – will be playing their final home games. Junior walk-on Henry Shortess is hanging up his sneakers after three seasons. The Baton Rouge native will graduate early after this year, and it’s a year he’ll never forget, thanks to the scholarship he earned during the final semester.
“That was a special week or two to share with friends and family and teammates,” Shortess said. “I’m still extremely thankful for that. It’s something I’ll cherish the rest of my life.”
Shortess is a business major with no plans set in stone for the future. He declined to enter his name into the NBA Draft, but said that “if they had a draft for executives, I’d put my name in as soon as possible.”
The first player to put his name in the NBA Draft this offseason will, in all likelihood, be LSU freshman Ben Simmons. There’s no question Simmons will be among the first two picks in this year’s lottery, and there’s no question that Senior Night will be his last regular season game in front of the home crowd. Jones noted that Simmons’ impact on the program transcends his stats – 19.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game.
“Ben committed to us over two-and-a-half, three years ago,” said Jones. “The attention that we received right off of the bat because of his commitment, prior to Ben arriving and getting here in June of last year, after we went to the conference and NCAA Tournament last year, I don’t think we spent a week since then out of the national media’s sight. In some capacity or another from the NCAA tournament last year up until today, there’s been some article or feature or something talking about LSU basketball. Ben’s presence and the success of the program over the last few years has led to that.”
Simmons may not be LSU’s only underclassman taken in the draft. Tim Quarterman is likely to forego his senior season D.spite an up-and-down junior campaign, the 6-foot-6 point guard is projected to be a late first, early second round pick because of his high ceiling, length, and versatility. Meanwhile, freshman Antonio Blakeney has rebounded from a slow start to the season to explode in February, averaging 20.0 points per game on 47 percent 3-point shooting, sparking chatter that he might take a look at the draft, as well.
“I’m not thinking about that at all,” Blakeney said. “Whenever that opportunity exists, I’ll think about it. I’m just thinking about the season right now. That’s it.”
Scouting Missouri: The visiting Tigers are in dead last in the SEC, with a 3-11 conference record. They’ve yet to win a road game all season, winless in ten tries. Their offense is woeful, scoring just 98.7 points per 100 possessions.
Blakeney Balling: Blakeney earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors after scoring 27.0 points per game in LSU’s two outings, capped off by a career-high 32 points against Florida. The freshman said the key has been increased confidence and increased touches.
- Confidence: “In practice, if I even turned down one shot that I was just a little open, they would get on me. They want me to be aggressive. They know I can score the ball, from Henry to Ben. All those guys want me to be aggressive. It helps my confidence a lot. I know my teammates want me to score and believe I can score.”
- Touches: “I’ve had the ball in my hands lately – if you watch the games – more than I’ve ever had it before since I’ve been here,” Blakeney said.
Tournament Update: LSU has a lot of work to do to make it back into the NCAA Tournament field. The Tigers sit ranked No. 85 in the PRI, as of publishing time. The highest RPI to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2005 was USC in 2011, ranked No. 67. The most losses for any at-large team is 14 (six times). LSU currently has 12 losses and will have at least 13 if it hopes to earn the big at-large. Friend of the magazine Chris Abshire calculated LSU’s RPI in two scenarios: winning out and losing in the SEC Tournament finals, and winning out while losing in the first game of the SEC Tournament. Neither case helps LSU jump to 67 or better.
— Chris Abshire (@ChrisAbshire) March 1, 2016
Johnny Jones on the three players to be honored for Senior Night
“I’ll start with Henry Shortess, a guy that I watched play here locally in high school. I never thought that he would possibly put on a LSU uniform. I thought he would have gone off to a Division II or NAIA school and maybe play tennis. He is an excellent tennis player and would get his education, maybe play basketball somewhere because he was a good shooter. I saw him here on campus and offered him an opportunity to maybe come out and be a part of the program. I had him work out with our guys. We got more than we bargained for with him because asking him to come out and be part of the team was one thing, but the leadership, ownership he took on as a walk-on in the position he was in, meant a lot. It showed a lot. He’s been a very intricate part of our team and has really impacted us from the areas that he could. We’ve been really grateful for that and have a great deal of respect for him.
“Josh Gray, this is the first time since the 10th grade that he’s been at the same place two years in a row. We are glad that he saw enough in the program and his growth from that one year to trust and believe in the program enough that he would still be here. He’s done a tremendous job being a part of the program for us. He’s had a lot of bright spots and has helped us in a lot of games, be it offensively and defensively. We’ve seen him grow as a person. We look forward to watching him walk across the stage with a degree in hand, hopefully, in May, something in an area that I’m not sure that he possibly thought could happen for him so soon. He’s been a joy to work with. His attitude daily at practice is something that has helped us continue to grow as a team. As competitive as he is, to come from averaging 33 point per game to being asked to play a certain role, we have to admire what he has done and the buy-in he’s had with this team.
“Keith Hornsby, a third year guy and senior for us, we first saw in him his ability to shoot. We thought he could come in and play a certain role for us and not realize that he would impact the team the way that he has over the three years. The year that he sat, he sat out and what he provided in practice every day for us just being in the locker room and being around. I still say in over 30 years of coaching at the Division I level, he’s the hardest working guy that I’ve ever been around. His approach to the game and the focus that he has out there on the floor, he’s really relentless. He too is one of those guys that we were recruiting him for certain things and got even more, much, much more than we knew we were getting at the time because of the leadership, hard work and impact he has made on this team, starting from the last two year. The way that he scored was a big part of our reason for getting to the NCAA tournament last year. After becoming eligible, he’s one of the reasons we put ourselves in the position to have an opportunity to repeat and go back to the tournament because of the impact he made out there on the floor for us. We are saddened that he probably won’t be in uniform tomorrow, so he could play his last regular season home game for us in front of a great crowd. I know our fans will do a great job in showing their appreciation of him as we go through the ceremonies prior to tip off Tuesday. “