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.

VIDEO: UConn’s Kwintin Williams would win the NBA dunk contest

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Think that’s too strong?

Look at this dunk:

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A post shared by Kwintin Williams (@jumpmanebig) on

He also did this over the summer:

Williams is a 6-foot-7, 215 pound JuCo transfer that should provide UConn with some minutes in the frontcourt this season.

LSU officially announces addition of Kavell Bigby-Williams

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LSU has announced the addition of Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-11 junior that was the National Junior College Player of the Year as a sophomore.

Bigby-Williams, who is a native of London, averaged 3.0 points and 2.8 boards last season as the Ducks reached the Final Four, but he played the majority of the season while under investigation for an alleged sexual assault that occurred while he was at Gillette College in Wyoming.

The local County Attorney declined to charge Bigby-Williams with a crime, and Gillette College police consider the case closed.

“The university conducted a responsible and comprehensive review before approving the transfer,” a release posted on LSU’s Athletics site read, “including close coordination with Title IX officials, multiple discussions with Gillette and Oregon officials and a thorough examination of available public records.”

LSU head coach Will Wade was quoted in that release as well: “This is an issue we all take seriously and we made absolutely sure we did our due diligence before considering moving forward. Kavell understands that and has made clear to me that he’s going to repay our confidence by representing LSU with his very best on and off the court.”

Report: Four-star Mamaou Doucoure has reclassified, enrolled at Rutgers

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Rutgers has made a potentially significant addition to their 2017 recruiting class, as four-star big man Mamadou Doucoure appears to have reclassified.

According to the Asbury Park Press, Doucoure has already enrolled in classes at Rutgers, citing a search of the university’s online database. The 6-foot-9 Doucoure was initially a member of the Class of 2017 before reclassifying to 2018, although there have been rumors that he has been trying to enroll this year.

It’s not yet clear if Doucoure will be eligible to play this season — he has not even been added to Rutgers’ roster online — but if he’s eligible, he should be able to provide rotation minutes for the Scarlet Knights.

Even if he’s not cleared to play this season, his addition matters. He’ll be able to workout with and develop in a Big Ten locker room before getting cleared to play alongside a massive 2018 recruiting class that already includes four-stars Mac McClung and Montez Mathis along with three-star prospect Ron Harper Jr.

Options drying up for top ten prospect Mitchell Robinson

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It’s looking less and less likely that we’ll see Mitchell Robinson on a college campus this season.

Robinson, if you’ve forgotten, committed to and signed with Western Kentucky, enrolling at the school and practicing with the team over the summer. But he left Bowling Green after two weeks and has received a release to transfer out of the program.

And that’s where the difficultly here lies.

He’s a transfer, which means that, as a top ten prospect and a likely one-and-done player, he will be redshirting the only year that he is on campus unless the NCAA would provide him with a waiver, which is unlikely. After Robinson left WKU, three schools have emerged as potential landing spots: LSU, Kansas and New Orleans. LSU ended their recruitment two weeks ago. Over the weekend, Kansas head coach essentially confirmed that Robinson will not be a Jayhawks.

“I would think that we probably won’t sign anybody,” Self told the Kansas City Star.

That leaves New Orleans, his hometown school, or overseas, which is a rumor that has followed Robinson since the spring. The other option? Sitting out and training for a year, which FanRag Sports reported on Sunday is a possibility.

However you slice it, Robinson’s one-and-done year has turned into a mess. He’s still likely to end up as a first round pick — seven-footers that can do the things he does defensively don’t grow on trees — but I can’t imagine that teams are going to be clamoring to use a lottery pick on a player that just spent a year sitting out.

VIDEO: Texas freshman Jericho Sims catches nasty alley-oop

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Texas is in Australia for their team’s summer trip, and Jericho Sims gave Longhorn fans a glimpse of why they may not miss Jarrett Allen’s athleticism all that much this season.