By Mario Jerez
The anticipation surrounding the LSU men’s basketball team was as high as it’s been in a long time entering the 2015-16 season.
Despite the departure of center Jordan Mickey and forward Jarell Martin to the NBA, the Tigers entered the season with lofty expectations, looking to build off of their first NCAA appearance since 2009.
Seven games later, LSU has learned that expectations doesn’t always equal results.
The Tigers (4-3) have gotten off to a rocky start and fallen out of the national rankings. However, LSU fans are hopeful the season can be salvaged behind the team’s talented young core.
The Tigers brought in the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation, spearheaded by Naismith player of the year candidate and preseason Associated Press All-American Ben Simmons, who recently became the first player to score over 40 points in a game for LSU since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 1991.
LSU also brought in shooting guard Antonio Blakeney from Sarasota, Florida, the No. 13 overall prospect according to Rivals.com.
After snagging two of Florida’s top recruits, LSU stayed in its own backyard to acquire the third member of the freshman “Killer B’s.”
Shooting guard Brandon Sampson signed with the Tigers, bolstering their already solid recruiting class and adding some local flare to the basketball hype train in Baton Rouge.
Sampson had a storied high school career at Madison Prep, where he won two state championships, including one with Martin in 2013. Sampson was voted Mr. Basketball in the state of Louisiana by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, just like Blakeney was Mr. Basketball in Florida.
Sampson led Madison Prep to a 35-1 record and a Louisiana state title with averages of 15.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game during his senior season. Although he initially committed to St. John’s earlier in the year, he reconsidered when the team parted ways with its head coach Steve Lavin.
Sampson elected to join his hometown Tigers, and LSU accepted him with open arms.
He said that coach Johnny Jones expects him to play at a high level at LSU. Although Sampson will have to embrace the team dynamic, Jones trusts he will keep some elements of the same aggressive scoring mentality he displayed throughout his time in high school.
“Coach has confidence in me,” Sampson said. “He really expects me to be a big factor on this team, so I know coming out [I] can’t be hesitant about shooting the ball. The biggest focus for us is shooting with confidence.”
Finding that confidence was never a problem for Sampson leading into his collegiate career, and it was on display early on during the team’s exhibition tour in Australia before the season.
Sampson was one of five players to average 25 minutes or more in the five games and averaged 11.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. His early success carried over to LSU’s season opener, where Sampson dropped 18 points on 50% shooting and a 4-6 clip from beyond the arc in his collegiate debut against McNeese State.
Sampson logged big minutes early on in the season, filling in for injured senior shooting guard Keith Hornsby, who is set to return in the coming weeks. After two consecutive single-digit scoring performances following the win against McNeese, Sampson regained his shooting stroke in the Legends Classic tournament in Brooklyn.
He was a bright spot for LSU in two losses, scoring 10 and 18 points against Marquette and NC State respectively.
It was a good start for Sampson, and he seemed to be finding his groove with LSU after a strong performance on a big stage. However, Sampson and the rest of LSU’s young players quickly learned that talent and confidence alone doesn’t consistently win games in college basketball.
This lesson was never more apparent than it was in LSU’s last loss, a 70-58 shocker against the College of Charleston. LSU suffered its third straight loss, putting LSU basketball fans in a state of shock after so much pre-season hype.
“It can only humble us,” Sampson said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’re not unbeatable. We just have to learn to bounce back and prepare for the next game.”
For Sampson, the loss was a learning experience.
He was held scoreless for the first time in his collegiate career on 0-3 shooting and played a career low 17 minutes. Sampson said his biggest takeaway from the loss was learning that he has to find other ways to help his team when his jumper isn’t falling.
“We understand every day is not going to be a good shooting day,” Sampson said. “That’s the mentality coming in. What are you going to do to help the team? Are you just going to shoot the ball and not do anything on the defensive end? That’s the biggest thing he wants me and Antonio to lock in on.”
With the imminent return of Hornsby and a plethora of guards already on the active roster, Sampson will be fighting for playing time the rest of the season.
Senior guards Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray will be battling for a spot in the rotation also, along with sharpshooting sophomore Jalyn Patterson.
Sampson doesn’t know what his future holds, but he does know what he can do to control it. In order for Sampson to become a permanent contributor on a contending team, Mr. Basketball will have to become Mr. Consistency.
“I know I can impact the game without starting,” Sampson said. “I don’t try to focus or lock in on that. I don’t let that determine the way I play. I just try to help the team. [Johnny Jones] tells me he knows what I’m capable of. He’s comfortable with me coming off the bench or starting, so I just try to give him my all every game.”