By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
The end of the Johnny Jones era is upon us.
If and when LSU bows out of the SEC Tournament this week, it will not take long for Joe Alleva to hand Jones his pink slip, bringing a once-promising five-year span to a disappointing conclusion.
Jones’ tenure as LSU’s head coach began promisingly enough. Inheriting a program averaging four SEC wins per season in Trent Johnson’s final three years, Jones immediately won more games in his first four campaigns than any coach in school history. He averaged 10 league wins per year, churned out a host of NBA products, and saw substantial increases in attendance.
But an embarrassing first round exit from the NCAA Tournament in 2015, failing to reach the NCAA Tournament despite the presence of No. 1 NBA Draft pick Ben Simmons in 2016, and setting a program record with 15 consecutive losses in 2017 has offset the initial progress the program made under Jones.
It’s possible to overcome losing seasons, but Jones is fighting battles on more than one front. He was never Alleva’s first choice. LSU’s athletic director passed on Jones in 2008 in favor of Johnson, and first offered the job to Tubby Smith in 2012. Smith’s refusal, plus political pressure from key basketball boosters and some success at North Texas, opened the door for Jones.
Now, Alleva will not hesitate to shut it. The summer before Simmons’ arrival, several sources told me Jones had a two-year window to make or break his job. That window, it seems, was well-known enough to destabilize Jones’ staff, leading several assistants to take jobs elsewhere and their potential replacements to steer clear altogether.
Simmons’ wild year and the bad press it generated nearly cost Jones a year ago. Based on several conversations with folks in the know, I’ve inferred Jones had to make the NCAA Tournament this year to keep his job. Whether or not Alleva issued such a directive remains unclear.
What is clear, however, is Jones will soon be gone. As LSU’s losing streak ran its eight-week course, many fans clamored for a midseason change, but Alleva played the right card by retaining Jones all year. He gave Jones a chance to turn things around, and when it was clear he wouldn’t, he gave Jones enough rope to successfully hang himself. It was a demise so bitter not even the most fervent Jones defender could argue against the logic of moving in a different direction.
Jones is a fine man who has run a clean program, sent players to the NBA, and led LSU to an NCAA Tournament. In the end, though, wins and losses matter most, and lately, the latter have come far more often than the former.
Now, the ball is in Alleva’s court, for the third time in his tenure. His first two hardcourt hires, Jones and Johnson, can only be classified as failures. (The jury remains out on women’s head coach Nikki Fargas, whose program is trending the right way this season.)
Will the third time be the charm? Ultimately, it will be Alleva’s call. LSU’s board, once a powerful player in coaching hires, has been reduced to little more than rubber stamp for Alleva. Athletic directors who generate a profit are rare; rarer, still, are ADs who cut a check back to the university. Alleva’s ability to balance budgets, build world-class facilities, and boost LSU’s success in non-revenue sports has earned him sufficient leverage to make hires with little push back from LSU’s supervisors.
Which direction Alleva takes is difficult to discern. He and his staff deserve credit from learning their lessons. Unlike November 2015’s football fiasco, leaks on the basketball program’s future have been non-existent.
Reading the tealeaves, I expect LSU to initially pursue a big name coach. The SEC Network leaves the program flush with cash to spend.
Tom Crean is on his way out at Indiana with two Big 10 titles and a Final Four on his résumé. (I don’t really see this one happening, to be fair.) Buzz Williams makes big bucks at Virginia Tech, but the former UNO head coach could see the SEC as far more friendly waters to navigate. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey interviewed for the LSU job in 2008; perhaps the former Duke assistant and Northwestern State alum whose sister attended LSU desires a change of scenery. Scott Drew is the son of former Dale Brown assistant Homer, and his work at Baylor has been remarkable this year. That athletic department is highly unstable at the moment, for obvious reasons.
Should LSU swing and miss at a big name – or simply choose to take the pitch – I’d look into the successful mid-major head coach/high-major assistant coach market. Ex-LSU assistant Eric Musselman has NBA experience and turned Nevada from Mountain West cellar dwellers to Mountain West champs. Arizona assistant Joe Pasternak led UNO through turbulent post-Katrina waters and has been the target of several recent coaching searches, including UNLV and Nevada. Xavier alum Pat Kelsey just led Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament; if Chris Mack remains put in Norwood, he’ll be eyeing Power 5 jobs this offseason.
Whomever Alleva pursues, I’d expect there to be some sort of connection on the staff to Dale Brown and LSU’s hoops legacy. There’s value in keeping ties to the program’s successful past. Ex-Tiger point guard and current assistant coach Randy Livingston has only been on Jones’ staff for a year. He has recruiting ties in New Orleans and has the ear of the current roster. I’d not be shocked if he’s around for the next head coach, as well.
All things considered, the new head coach will inherit as talent-rich a two-win SEC team as could be hoped for. Brandon Sampson is dripping with NBA potential, if he can get his game refined in a few areas. Skylar Mays has the makings of an All-SEC point guard. Duop Reath is 10 pounds away from being a real force in the paint.
Most critically, I believe Antonio Blakeney can be convinced to come back for his junior year. Blakeney likes college. He wants to be a first round pick. He arrived, contrary to popular belief, open to a multi-year stay in Baton Rouge. If he sees LSU hire a coach who can take his game – and draft stock – to the next level, he’ll consider a return. The window is open, if only a bit.
All of these storylines will tell the tale of LSU basketball moving forward, but none more so than who emerges as Jones’ successor. Whoever he is, he has both a monumental task and a monumental opportunity ahead of him. LSU basketball has reached a valley, but it’s shown in the past it’s capable of reaching great peaks.
It simply requires the right leader to get there.