David Cloninger

Previewing SEC basketball: LSU

Ben Simmons has the most hype of an LSU basketball player since Shaquille O’Neal.
Ben Simmons has the most hype of an LSU basketball player since Shaquille O’Neal. AP

South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.

Other previews

Oct. 31 Alabama

Nov. 1 Arkansas

Nov. 2 Auburn

Nov. 3 Florida

Nov. 4 Georgia

Nov. 5 Kentucky

LSU

Men

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Johnny Jones (61-37, fourth year; 266-199, 16th year)

2014-15 record (SEC finish): 22-11 (11-7)

2014-15 postseason: First round, NCAA

Roster

Schedule

He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): F Jarell Martin (NBA, 16.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg), F Jordan Mickey (NBA, 15.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg), G Antonio Robinson (0.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg), F John Odo (1.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg), G Carlton Speight (no longer on team, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)

He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-9 F Craig Victor (So., transfer from Arizona, eligible after the first semester), 6-5 G Brandon Sampson, 6-4 G Antonio Blakeney, 6-10 F Ben Simmons

Top returners: 6-4 G Keith Hornsby (5.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg), 6-6 G Tim Quarterman (5.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), 6-1 G Josh Gray (2.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg)

* Happy days are here again …

* If.

There hasn’t been this much hype around LSU basketball since some dude named O’Neal was patrolling the lane. The Tigers signed the top recruit in the country, according to some services, and no matter if he was No. 1 or No. 2 behind Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, there’s no doubt that Ben Simmons is the real deal.

He’s already been voted Preseason SEC Player of the Year and he’s a 6-10 forward/guard, as adept at bringing the ball up as he is at driving from the block. Simmons is the kind of mega-talent that had LSU thinking Final Four when he signed; having Brandon Sampson, Antonio Blakeney and Arizona transfer Craig Victor around a solid group of veterans reinforces that thought.

If the Tigers still had Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, they’d already have their Houston itinerary distributed. As it is, they will be a formidable bunch, if the rookies can deal with the expectations placed upon them and none of the older players get cranky with reduced minutes.

And there’s that other * if – coach Johnny Jones.

No question that Jones can recruit. And he’s an LSU guy who’s won some games in his first three years.

The problem is some think he should have won more.

“It does bother me, because it’s nothing that he does,” guard Keith Hornsby said at SEC Tipoff. “It’s us.”

Jones was the target of several rather vocal Twitter-ati during LSU’s last two games last season, which were both epic meltdowns. The Tigers earned a double-bye in the SEC tournament, yet lost to an Auburn team that was 4-14 in the SEC regular season and was playing its third game in as many days. They sweated a bit on the NCAA tournament selection but got in – and then didn’t hit a field goal in the final 10 minutes as a 14-point lead turned into a one-point loss to NC State.

The critics pointed to Jones, as if he was the one who missed 12 field goals and six free throws against the Wolfpack. The SEC tournament was one for his enemies as well – Auburn played very well, but LSU had chances to lock the game and failed.

The Tigers turned it over on a shot-clock violation coming out of a timeout in the final seconds. They still had a three-point lead, though, and when Auburn passed the ball to Cinmeon Bowers, a 48-percent free-throw shooter, LSU should have fouled.

They didn’t. Bowers threw to K.T. Harrell. Harrell swished a 3-pointer for overtime, and Auburn won.

It’s those kinds of moments that have had a lot of the national media turn the Snark Meter on high during the offseason. “This is the kind of talent that will have everyone asking, ‘How come they don’t win more?’” was a kinder comment.

Hornsby said his teammates hear it but ignore it. They know how good they can be. Simmons is a once-in-a-generation talent and he has lots of help.

“I personally love Johnny as a coach,” Hornsby said. “He’s probably the best I’ve ever had. I don’t listen to that stuff.”

Women

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Nikki Caldwell (83-50, fifth year; 155-76, eighth year)

2014-15 record (SEC finish): 17-14 (10-6)

2014-15 postseason: First round, NCAA

Roster

Schedule

She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G DaShawn Harden (11.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg), F Sheila Boykin (5.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg), G Danielle Ballard (dismissed, 14.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg)

She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-2 F Tatum Neubert (So., transferred from Oregon, will sit out this year), 5-8 G Shanice Norton, 6-2 F Ayana Mitchell, 5-9 G Chloe Jackson (So., transfer from NC State, will sit out this year), 5-11 F Alexis Hyder (Jr., transferred from North Texas, sat out last year)

Top returners: 5-10 G Raigyne Moncrief (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), 5-7 G Jenna Deemer (5.7 ppg, 0.8 rpg), 6-1 G/F Anne Pedersen (5.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg)

LSU scrapped to the NCAA tournament last year despite starting 6-6, with losses to Arkansas-Little Rock, Santa Clara and Long Beach State. The reason? The Tigers rebounded to win 10 in the SEC, including three over Top 25 opponents. Then they got two more wins in the SEC tournament, with another over the Top 25.

The success was heavily tied to Danielle Ballard, a first-team All-SEC selection despite being suspended for the first 14 games. The outstanding guard meant that much to the Tigers. She could be a one-woman show any time she took the court, and it was no coincidence that LSU began winning when she returned (Ballard was the team’s high scorer in eight of her 17 games, with at least 22 points in three of the eight).

With Ballard returning for a full year and the discovered contributions of Raigyne Moncrief, the Tigers figured to contend in 2015-16. They still may – but they’ll have to find a lot of scoring very quickly.

Ballard, a troubled soul off the court, used up her last chance and was dismissed during the summer. She went to Europe to play and may soon return, but as a WNBA prospect, not a Tiger.

Caldwell has enough going for her to not worry about her job status, but it may be a rough season. She has several unknown or barely-known pieces that she’ll have to mix and match into a winning lineup, and while Moncrief can be a deadly slasher, she’s not much of a jump-shooter. The word is already out to get in front of Moncrief out on the wing, forcing her to pass before she gets too close to the lane.

Ayana Mitchell, a four-star talent from Georgia, won’t have a chance to work her way in – she’ll have to be a star right away. She can help handle the post and take some of the scoring burden off Moncrief, with North Texas transfer Alexis Hyder handling the other block.

The positive for LSU is it’s had plenty of time to find solutions since Ballard left. It just has to put them all together. The schedule is conducive to get off to a good start before a brutal two-game road stretch of Rutgers and Connecticut, and SEC play starts with a road trip to Alabama and home games against a very young Ole Miss team and veteran Texas A&M. The Tigers will need to get the “maybe” games against the lower teams in the league – their final seven SEC games feature Mississippi State, Kentucky, A&M, Tennessee and South Carolina, with three on the road.

The season looked bleak last year and Caldwell still scored a tournament berth. Don’t count her out.

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