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.

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“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.

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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.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.

South Carolina fans raise money to send “Gamecock Jesus” to Final Four

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South Carolina fans are sending one of their most recognizable compatriots to represent them this weekend.

Gamecock Jesus is heading to the Final Four.

South Carolina super fan Carlton Thompson is following the Gamecocks to Glendale as his fellow fans have raised over $7,500 to send the man known as “Gamecock Jesus” to Arizona for the team’s Final Four meeting with Gonzaga on Saturday night.

Thompson’s long hair, beard and presence at South Carolina games, even in lean times, earned him his nickname and apparently a following fervent enough to foot the bill for quite the trip.

“I’ve always dreamed it would be like this,” Thompson said last week about fan support at Gamecock games to the Post and Courier. “For years and years, it was so sparse with the crowds at the games. But once they started winning, the crowds started coming.”

Thompson is a 63-year-old VA hospital nurse, and has been attending South Carolina games for nearly 50 years.

Maryland’s Melo Trimble declares for the NBA Draft

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Melo Trimble’s career as a Maryland Terrapin is coming to an end. The junior guard is declaring for the NBA Draft and will sign with an agent.

“I am confident and excited to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Trimble said in a release. “I am proud of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish these past three seasons at Maryland. I developed many great relationships and friendships and together we able to create some very special moments for Maryland basketball. I want to thank Coach Turgeon for all of his support. He always believed in me. He challenged me and really helped in the development of my overall game. I am a more complete basketball player because of Coach Turgeon and the coaching staff. To stay at home and attend the University of Maryland is the best decision that I ever made and it was truly special to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. Maryland will always be home.”

There was no better winner in college basketball the last three years than Melo. He changed the trajectory of Mark Turgeon’s program, winning 79 games in three years and ending his career 30-8 in games decided by six points or less. As a junior, Trimble and the Terps earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA tournament, but they lost in the first round to Xavier. It was the only time in Trimble’s career that he didn’t reach the Sweet 16.

“Melo Trimble is a winner,” Mark Turgeon said on twitter. “Humble, hard-working, dedicated. Words can’t express what he’s done for our program. Always #StayMelo!”