By Andrew Alexander
Schizophrenic. Mesmerizing. Frustrating. Successful.
All of those adjectives could accurately describe how the 2014-15 LSU basketball season played out.
At 22-11, the Tigers improved 2014’s overall and conference win total by two and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. A trip that ended rather abruptly – a 66-65 last second loss to North Carolina State in the tournament’s second round.
“Thought our guys did a terrific job of getting off to a great start in their first opportunity to be playing in an NCAA tournament,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones. “Unfortunately, we came up short. But really proud of our team and the effort that they displayed tonight.”
At times the Tigers soared, winning road games over ranked foes West Virginia and Arkansas and taking an historical undefeated Kentucky squad to the final possession before falling two points short. Then there were the valleys, the instances that made fans want to scream at the television, like when LSU allowed Auburn’s KT Harrell to force overtime with a wide open three-pointer in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals or when a mediocre Tennessee squad blew out the Tigers by 15 points in the Assembly Center.
And the free throws.
The 2015 Tigers shot a pedestrian 68.4 percent from the free throw line (204th in the nation) and channeled the charity-stripe deficiency of former LSU great Shaquille O’Neal in their final two games of the season against Auburn and North Carolina State with a paltry 37-for-66 performance.
Undoubtedly LSU, and Jones in particular, will continue to be criticized for its inability to adapt in key game situations. The most glaring example reared its ugly head when North Carolina State’s stymied the Tigers’ up-tempo offense in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After roaring to a 40-26 halftime lead, LSU struggled to regain its offensive momentum when the Wolfpack inevitably slowed the pace of play down. It wasn’t the first time LSU had faced offensive adversity, but it was the most significant.
Ultimately, the Tigers were doomed to fail this season because they lacked depth, any semblance of veteran leadership and a clutch alpha-male point guard.
LSU’s roster may have been tired by season’s end, and with four players averaging 33 minutes or more and only two others averaging double figure minutes, one could certainly make the argument.
It may have been young, relying on a trio of sophomores, two juniors who transferred in and a freshman for the bulk of the minutes, but college basketball is a young man’s game, right?
The Tigers’ backcourt featured a pair of point guards, Tim Quarterman and freshman discovery Jalyn Patterson, capable of taking over games at the flip of a switch and another transfer guard who never seemed to embrace his new distribution-heavy role.
Whether it’s the Maui Invitational in November or the Madness of March, the harsh reality of college basketball is that those who adapt will survive and advance. Adjusting in the heat of moment, when the game is on the line is easier said than done. Fans love to blame the coaches when everything goes wrong, and of course the coaches deserve a fair share of responsibility for their team’s achievements and failures, but players make plays.
The perception that LSU’s squad was loaded with talent is a untrue. Johnny Jones’ third LSU team was lead by one sure-fire NBA draft pick in Jarell Martin, a couple of potential NBA players (Tim Quarterman and Jordan Mickey) and a handful of decent to average college players.
From UConn’s Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor in 2004 to UConn’s Shabazz Napier in 2014, every NCAA men’s basketball national champion since 2004 (with the exception of the 2012 freshman-laden Kentucky Wildcats) has been characterized by strong veteran leadership and talented guard play.
LSU lacked both this season and still made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years and came within a made free throw away from advancing to the third round. No veteran point guard to calm the storms of a rocky-opponent run, a single bench player to provide desperately needed offensive sparks and no court leader to rely on in crunch time – and you’re telling me Jones did a bad job this season?
Criticize the team, Jones, Mickey’s missed free throws, Josh Gray’s constant between-the-legs dribbling or Darcy Malone’s inability to score within three feet of the basket all you want. The LSU men’s basketball team overachieved this year, and put the basketball world on notice, one Martin Eastbay funk dunk at a time.
Led by the top ranked recruit in Australia-native Ben Simmons, LSU’s cavalry is on the horizon. The return of Mickey or Martin would be beneficial, but even if the two frontcourt stalwarts decide to ply their trade at the next level, the 2015-16 Tigers will have the ingredients of a championship contender.