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Can LSU play up to its talent level this season after disappointing ’13-’14?

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LONG BEACH, California — With a front court headlined by Johnny O’Bryant III and bolstered by the addition of a talented recruiting class led by forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, LSU entered the 2013-14 season with the expectation of competing for an NCAA tournament bid. In total, LSU returned five of its top seven players, which is why the SEC coaches picked the Tigers to finish fourth in the preseason poll.

Things didn’t work out that way.

LSU won 20 games but finished just 9-9 in conference play. Instead of spending Selection Sunday wondering where their NCAA tournament would begin, LSU found itself awaiting the NIT selection show. The Tigers lost in the second round to SMU, and while they did lose contributors such as O’Bryant, leading assist man Anthony Hickey and third-leading scorer Shavon Coleman, there is once again optimism in Baton Rouge.

Mickey and Martin lead the returnees, and LSU also adds a solid group of newcomers led by juco point guard Josh Gray and UNC Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby. From a talent standpoint, the belief is that the pieces are there to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. In order to make good on that potential, however, LSU is going to be the team that beat Kentucky without reverting to the team that went 2-7 on the road in SEC play this season.

RELATED: Rating the performance of every college player at adidas Nations

“We have to be more consistent,” Mickey told NBCSports.com at the adidas Nations camp. “We beat some big-name teams but we weren’t able to string together wins like we needed to. We definitely need to work on being more consistent, and on our team defense.”

To Mickey’s point, there were multiple occasions in which LSU found a way to generate positive momentum, only to allow it to slip away with a lackluster performance. After losing two of their first three games to start SEC play the Tigers won back-to-back games, only to drop a two-point decision at Alabama on January 25. LSU managed to pick up wins over Kentucky and Arkansas in the games that followed, only to be soundly defeated at Georgia on February 6. And the Tigers struggled on the road, with their only wins coming against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Obviously, that has to change if the Tigers are to take a step forward in 2014-15, and the hope is that their new point guard can help lead the charge.

Given his ability to score from the point guard position, Gray gives LSU an added dimension at the position. While Hickey did dish out 3.7 assists per game and did a good job of taking care of the basketball — his assist-to-turnover ratio ranked second in the SEC — he shot just 36.9 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Last season at Odessa, Gray accounted for 33.8 points and 5.9 assists per contest and, given the front court talent this group boasts, could potentially give LSU a boost it lacked a season ago. But he arrives on campus thinking not of how his ability to score can help the Tigers, but of the importance of establishing himself as a capable leader of the team. One of LSU’s biggest issues was that it had too many shot-happy guards on a team that should have been pounding the ball inside.

MORE: Superlatives for the best college players at adidas Nations

In order to best position himself, Gray’s worked hard not only on his individual game but also on establishing a rapport with his teammates and coaches during summer workouts.

“I’ve worked hard to make sure I’m ready to contribute and have an impact,” Gray told NBCSports.com. “I’m just going to be very coachable, do what my coach asks of me and we’ll go from there.”

From an efficiency standpoint, LSU finished in the middle of the SEC, ranking eighth in the conference in offensive efficiency, and the Tigers were even worse when it came to getting to the foul line. LSU scored just 18.6 percent of its points from the foul line in 2013-14, a number that ranked last in the SEC and is evidence of its struggles getting the ball to its bigs. O’Bryant was the Tigers’ most effective player when it came to getting to the foul line, and making strides in this area would give LSU more opportunities to put points on the board.

That’s just one area in which the Tigers, especially the members of the front court rotation, will need to account for the departure of their leading scorer. And according to Mickey, the act of “replacing” O’Bryant won’t fall on the shoulders of one player alone.

“We just have to make up for it as a team,” Mickey said. “We have to trust our offense, trust our coaches and not be selfish players.”

Mickey will be a key player for LSU as it looks to return to the NCAA tournament. He comes off of a season in which he established himself as one of the best freshmen in the SEC. Mickey started all 34 games for the Tigers in his first season, averaging 12.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per contest and ranking sixth in the SEC in field goal percentage (53.4 percent). Mickey’s worked hard to become a more consistent mid-range shooter, and for his new point guard, the experience of playing together at adidas Nations served as an eye-opener with regards to the amount of talent Mickey possesses.

“Coming out here and playing on the same team, that’s helped a lot,” Gray said at the time. “Now I know what he likes, what he doesn’t like and what positions he’s [at his best]. He cleans up the boards, he runs the floor, gets second-chance [opportunities] and blocks shots.”

This season, LSU won’t lack for talent in a conference that will once again be led by a loaded Kentucky squad and reigning league champ Florida. And once again, the question for the rest of the conference is who can step forward to challenge those two perennial juggernauts. The Tigers fashion themselves as a team capable of doing so, with their returnees and new faces like Gray and Hornsby, who has the potential to give this group the perimeter shooter needed to complement their front court options.

Yet in order to do so LSU will need to play with greater consistency than they did in 2013-14. With last year’s freshmen now sophomores, the hope is that last season’s experiences have helped those players grow. And with there being just one senior on this year’s roster, a good 2014-15 could very well serve as a springboard into the future for Johnny Jones’ Tigers.

LaVar Ball walks back statement on Lonzo’s Laker future

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The only person better at generating headlines than Lonzo Ball seems to be his father, LaVar. The elder Ball managed to do so again this weekend, once for saying something wild and then again for walking those comments back.

LaVar told KCUB Sports Radio 1290 in Arizona that UCLA star Lonzo would play for the Lakers and that he would discourage other teams from taking the stellar point guard at the top of the draft. Later, he said he was only posturing.

“I’m not trying to say he won’t play for a different team,” LaVar told ESPN. “But I’d like him to play for the Lakers because it’s home, and I’d love him to learn from Magic [Johnson]. He’s the best guard ever to me, and nobody better for Lonzo to learn from than Magic Johnson.”

Lonzo is averaging 14.8, 7.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game for the Bruins, who stand at 26-3 on the season. He’s in the mix to be the potential No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft.

LaVar has already stated on multiple occasions that Lonzo is better than two-time MVP Steph Curry of Golden State. He’s clearly supremely confident – and outspoken – about his son’s talent. With two younger sons, LaMelo and LiAngelo, set to soon begin their own college careers, LaVar’s exuberant proclamations may just be getting started.

Duke and Krzyzewski have “a decision” to make as injuries linger

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 26:  Amile Jefferson #21 talks with Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils during the game against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Duke missed the production of veterans Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson on Saturday in its 55-50 loss to Miami, the Blue Devils’ second-straight loss after falling to Syracuse earlier in the week. It also missed their influence on the offensive end.

Allen missed the game with an ankle injury while the foot problem that sidelined Jefferson for a pair of games in January continues to be an issue and limited to minor second-half minutes Saturday. Without the pair, Duke shot 31.8 percent from the floor and had 13 turnovers against the Hurricanes.

We need those guys to calm people down on the offensive end,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “The continuity on the offensive end is not up to par with the defense.”

Both players will be re-evaluated before Tuesday’s home contest against Florida State, but Jefferson’s injury would appear to be the most concerning given it has lingered for well over a month now.

“I’ve got to make a decision with Amile,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s not running. He is not running at all.”

Duke could likely make it work in the short term if it was short just one of the Allen-Jefferson duo, but without both it stresses the ballhandling, playmaking and inexperienced frontcourt all at the same time. Luke Kennard was the only Blue Devil to crack double figures scoring against the ‘Canes while freshmen Marques Bolden and Harry Giles, who both have had their injury issues, were relatively ineffective in player fewer than 20 minutes apiece. Both Kennard and Jayson Tatum played a full 40.

At the start of the season, Duke had the look of a juggernaut, but given the multitude of issues they’ve faced seemingly from the jump, it has a bit of a slog with only a seven-game winning streak to have eased their pain all year.

What made the Blue Devils look so formidable before the season was their sheer level of talent. With Allen and Jefferson ailing, the move for Krzyzewski might be to just bet on that talent in the NCAA tournament rather than jockey for seeding position. He could keep Jefferson and Allen on the shelf as they heal, give Giles and Bolden a ton of run and then just make a go of it in the Big Dance, betting on the talent overcoming the inconsistency of the season.

Like Krzyzewski said about Jefferson, he’s got a decision to make.

VIDEO: Indiana’s Hartman proposes to girlfriend on Senior Night

OMAHA, NE - MARCH 20: Collin Hartman #30 of the Indiana Hoosiers reacts against the Wichita State Shockers during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the CenturyLink Center on March 20, 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Indiana’s Collin Hartman hasn’t appeared in a game this year after suffering a torn ACL in the offseason. Still he managed to make one heck of a highlight this weekend.

The Hoosier senior took the opportunity of his senior night speech to propose to his girlfriend, an Indiana cheerleader.

She said yes.

Hartman’s night wasn’t the only one that was a success, as Indiana snapped a five-game losing streak with a win Saturday over Northwestern.

Is Gonzaga a fraud? Did Gonzaga need to lose? Answering key Zags questions after BYU loss

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25:  The BYU Cougars celebrate their 79-71 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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There are going to be a lot of questions asked about Gonzaga following their loss to BYU late on Saturday night

We answer all of those questions for you right here:

Is Gonzaga a fraud?: So let me get this straight: You think that Gonzaga is a fraud because, after winning 29 straight games and totally outclassing everyone in their conference for two months, they lost to a program that has beaten them four times in the last four years? Come on.

The Zags are still sitting atop KenPom’s efficiency ratings. They’re still sitting atop Sagarin’s ratings. They’re still the second-favorite team to win the national title, according to Vegas Insider’s futures. The team at the top of that list, Duke, took a similarly awful loss at home earlier this year, falling to an N.C. State team that has won one game in the six weeks since. You might have asked if Duke was a fraud then. You would’ve been wrong about that, too. West Virginia lost at home to Oklahoma earlier this year. Are they frauds, too?

The fact of the matter is that the Zags blew a 16-point lead at home to a team that lost to San Diego earlier this year. That’s really bad. No one is trying to sugar coat it. It’s also the first time this season that they’ve put out this kind of a performance. The first time in 29 games. The first time in four months.

Weird things happen in college basketball. This is probably one of them.

Did Gonzaga need to take a loss before the start of the tournament?: No.

I hate that line of thinking. Taking a loss is not some kind team-defining wake-up call, especially not when it’s a program like Gonzaga, a program that is defined as much by their lack of March success as anything. Fair or not, that’s how the Zags are viewed nationally, even if that perception — as my buddy Gary Parrish of CBS Sports detailed here — is inaccurate based on the actual tournament results. But the fact remains that this program has never been to a Final Four. Wichita State has. Butler has. VCU has. Those are the teams from outside the establishment that have played in April.

Gonzaga has not

And that is the monkey on this team’s back.

Yes, having a ‘1’ in the loss column is going to take some of the attention and some of the pressure off in March, but that’s not going to change the fact that this is the best Gonzaga team that Mark Few has ever had. That’s going to be the narrative enveloping this team in March, and heading into the tournament with a loss isn’t going to change that.

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs works from the sideline in the second half against the BYU Cougars at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. BYU defeated Gonzaga 79-71. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Head coach Mark Few (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Are they still going to be a No. 1 seed?: Probably.

The Zags would have been a lock to be a No. 1 seed out west had they entered Selection Sunday without a loss to their name. Barring some kind of insanity, they will probably still be a No. 1 seed if they can win the WCC tournament, especially if that title includes another win over Saint Mary’s. Where things get tricky is if the Zags drop a game in the WCC tournament. In that case, whoever ends up winning the Pac-12 tournament will probably have a strong argument to be seeded above the Zags.

Can they be trusted to win a national title?: This is where things get tricky.

I think the idea of needing to take a loss late in the season is dumb, but I do subscribe to the thinking that Gonzaga needed to be tested in a close game before taking a loss means that their season is over. The Zags hadn’t trailed in the second half for 15 straight games before Saturday, and it showed. They lacked poise down the stretch. They made defensive errors. They turned the ball over. They struggled to find good shots in their offense. For lack of a better way to phrase it, the Zags looked overwhelmed by the moment.

Will they learn from this? Because they need to.

But there’s more to it than just having to learn. The concern with this Gonzaga team is whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense down the stretch against a set, elite defense. BYU’s defense is not what one would call elite. If the Zags cannot score against them down the stretch, what are they going to do against some of the best back courts in the country?

No. 1 Gonzaga loses their first game of the season at home to BYU

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dave Rose of the BYU Cougars works from the sideline in the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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The streak is over.

Despite jumping out to an 18-2 lead on BYU in The Kennel, No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga found a way to lose their first game of the season late on Saturday night, falling 79-71 to the Cougars behind 29 points and 11 boards from Eric Mika.

Tyler Haws added 17 points and Elijah Bryant chipped in with 14, but this game was less about BYU than it was about Gonzaga.

The concern with this Zags team is that whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense in critical moments, and on Saturday, that looked like one of their biggest issues. Gonzaga’s offense went dead down the stretch. If they weren’t getting shots in transition, they were trying to run their sets through Przemek Karnowski in the post. That’s not an awful idea — he’s awesome — but BYU is not a good defensive team. If Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins struggled with their ability to beat Nick Emery and T.J. Haws off the dribble and couldn’t find a way to finish around Eric Mika and a member of BYU’s football team, what happens when they go up against, say, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk or Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham?

It’s a real concern, and every got a glimpse of that on Saturday night.

The other problem: Was I the only one that thought the Zags looked a little tight down the stretch, like they weren’t comfortable playing in a close game like that? Gonzaga shoots 73.8 percent from the free throw line on the season and shot 16-for-29 on Saturday. They’re 32nd nationally in three-point shooting and finishing Saturday 3-for-16 from beyond the arc. They missed makeable shots in the post. No one stepped up and took control down the stretch. Who is the alpha-dog?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s what the view looked like from my couch.

As far as how Gonzaga’s national title hopes are affected by this, I’m not too concerned. I think ditching the pressure of chasing a perfect season will probably be a net positive in the long run, and if anything, this loss made it painfully obvious for Mark Few what he needs to work on with this team. I don’t buy into the idea that “you need to lose” before the tournament, but I do think Gonzaga needed to get tested like this before the losses meant the end of their season.

The biggest concern is going to be whether or not this costs Gonzaga a No. 1 seed, but I still don’t think that it does, at least not yet. I’m not sure that Oregon, Arizona or UCLA has surpassed them, and the gap between Baylor and the No. 1 seed line only gets bigger with each passing loss. The Zags should be a No. 1 seed if they win the WCC tournament.

And to be frank, this loss doesn’t change the way that I feel about Gonzaga. They still are one of the two or three best teams in college basketball, a team that is good enough to win a national title.

But what this loss does do is make me less confident in the ability of the Zags to get it done.

Because all the issues we talked about with Gonzaga came to fruition Saturday night:

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