Before LSU’s basketball team had the remainder of its 2019-20 season curtailed by the COVID-19 health scare, the Tigers already had a player on their roster accustomed to abrupt change.
Junior guard Charles Manning Jr. led LSU in surgeries, undergoing procedures on each of his feet over a span of 5½ weeks during Southeastern Conference play. The second instance on Feb. 22 sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
“It was the first time ever getting injured,” said the 6-5 Manning, a Riverhead, N.Y. native who started in three of 19 games in his first season with Will Wade’s Tigers after transferring from Florida SouthWestern State Community College.
“When I came back the first time, it was cool. When I got hurt the second time, it sparked something in my head to relax. Just take the time off and get myself together. Get the stuff fixed off the court and then bring it back on the court.”
Four games after LSU lost the services of Manning – an injury that occurred in the final seconds of an 86-80 road win over South Carolina that further depleted a depth-thin team – the season was over when the SEC cancelled its postseason tournament.
Then came the double gut-punch when the NCAA called off March Madness and halted the rest of the season for all sports. By that time, Manning had already endured a crash-course in shattered dreams.
When healthy, he was the Tigers’ top reserve. With a mix of versatility on the offensive end and a reliable defender against either big guards or small forwards, he averaged 7.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks in 22.6 minutes.
At the time of his first injury, Manning had proven to be a capable scorer. He played a valuable role in the Tigers’ 60-59 come-from-behind home win over Mississippi State in which All-SEC senior guard Skylar Mays hit a game-winning shot as time expired.
Manning nearly equaled his career high against the Bulldogs, finishing as LSU’s second-leading scorer with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with two steals in 25 minutes played. It was his 3-pointer with 1:06 to play that gave the Tigers a 57-55 lead, their first in eight minutes.
Three games later in a Jan. 14 matchup at Texas A&M, Manning’s season was interrupted for the first time. He broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot in the first half after playing only six minutes and scoring one point.
LSU went 5-2 during Manning’s absence before he returned during a Feb. 15 road contest at Alabama, scoring two points and grabbing three rebounds in 16 minutes in an 88-82 setback.
Manning’s presence lasted two games when near the end of LSU’s win at South Carolina. He had scored nine points and collected six rebounds in 23 minutes when he broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot.
“I just stepped in a weird way, felt the numbness and everything that came with it,” he said. “The second one was kind of tough to deal with. It took more of a toll on me and my mindset with the mental state of the game. I had to focus on getting myself back 100 percent. I’ve taken it day by day. By the time next year comes, I’ll be good.”
After the Tigers finished last season 21-10 overall and 12-6 in the SEC – a pair of metrics that would have earned LSU an NCAA tournament bid for a second consecutive season – Manning points to a retooled 2020-21 roster with seven newcomers (and potentially one more).
“My role’s going to be different,” said Manning, who will be LSU’s lone senior. “I’m going to have to take on more leadership and scoring. I’m going to have to basically bring what I did to juco (16.8 points as All-American in his sophomore year) to this next level, which I can. Nobody will ever be like Skylar. It’s all about bringing that same leadership approach to the game.”
Manning believes the beauty of LSU’s upcoming season is aside from a talented roster, the success or failure of the Tigers won’t be tied to any one player.
It’s easy to envision a roster including sophomore Trendon Watford and juniors Javonte Smart and Darius Days, all of whom declared for the NBA draft while maintaining their college eligibility.
Manning believes the Tigers will have enough pieces to challenge to win a second SEC championship in what would be the last three seasons. The Tigers could make a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time Dale Brown’s teams played in the Big Dance nine consecutive seasons ending in 1992-93.
“It would be great if they all come (back), but if they don’t then we’ve got to go with what we have,” said Manning, also noting an impending decision next week from the nation’s ninth-ranked player Moussa Cisse, a 6-foot-10 center who has LSU among his five finalists. “I feel as though the people coming in have a good mindset. We’re going to be a younger team. Maybe more willing to learn new stuff and be able to do different things to help the team.”
With the exception of a brief return home where he did some running under the supervision of a trainer, Manning has stayed in Baton Rouge recovering from his second surgery while dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
He has been vigilant, choosing to remain at his apartment and avoiding crowds while shoring up himself academically with the idea his senior season has earmarks of being memorable.
“I have been doing a lot of thinking about next year, my approach to the game and how I want to go about it,” Manning said. “I’m really excited because we can win the SEC. Because of my injuries, I had a lot of my season taken away. I want this to be a good experience and win it and do something different. More importantly, I want to stay healthy my senior year and play the length of the season.”