LSU basketball falls on hard times

Dave Moormann

The past met with the present on LSU’s basketball court last week and painted a bleak picture for the Tigers’ immediate future.

LSU’s once-vaunted program that Johnny Jones knew so well only wishes it could play the way North Texas is doing under Jones’ tutelage.

The difference between the two was dramatically obvious in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where Jones’ Mean Green spanked his alma matter, 75-55.

North Texas isn’t quite ready to compete in the Final Four, as did LSU when Jones played for the Tigers in 1981, or as they did in 1986 when Jones served as an assistant coach.

Yet the disparity between LSU and North Texas is such that the Mean Green has a better chance of winning an NCAA Tournament game than the Tigers do of even reaching the postseason.

As good a coach as LSU’s Trent Johnson may be, he can’t win without a healthy dose of talented players. In his 10th year at North Texas, Jones has that and more.

All but two of Jones’ players are from Texas, and the two he has from Louisiana have made considerable contributions through the years. They did so again last week when senior guard Josh White of Baton Rouge scored a game-high 19 points. White and New Orleans’ Kedrick Hogans each had a steal. In addition, Hogans grabbed eight rebounds, scored six points and blocked a shot. All this, too, after the junior forward missed last season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

LSU’s best teams of late were blessed with superb players from the Baton Rouge area. Baton Rouge’s Marcus Thornton helped LSU win the Southeastern Conference championship two seasons ago in Johnson’s first year.

The Tigers reached the Final Four in 2006 with Denham Springs’ Tasmin Mitchell and four Baton Rougeans, including current NBA players Glen Davis of the Boston Celtics, Tyrus Thomas of the Charlotte Bobcats and Garrett Temple of the San Antonio Spurs. Making it all go was point guard Darrel Mitchell of St. Martinville.

Before that, LSU had Baton Rougean Brandon Bass now with the Orlando Magic. LSU’s current roster includes Bass’ younger brother, Chris, but Chris lacks his brother’s size and ability.

LSU’s Johnson has a healthy dose of Louisianans at his disposal, but there aren’t enough gifted ones to win conference championships and advance far into the NCAA Tournament.

Jones knows plenty about the unpredictability of recruiting. An all-state guard at DeRidder, Jones’ LSU career never quite matched his previous accomplishments. Coaching, it seems, is Jones’ strength.

He has the Mean Green headed toward its fifth consecutive 20-win season and a higher NCAA Tournament seeding than last season when it played and lost to powerful Kansas State in the first round.

At this point, LSU would gladly take a seeding of any kind in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the SEC Tournament. As it is, LSU lacks the confidence of a team such as North Texas. The Mean Green overpowered LSU for 40 points in the paint and held the Tigers to 36.5 percent shooting. What’s more, North Texas enjoyed a 17-2 run over the final six minutes of the first half that all but sealed the outcome.

Jones complimented his team for having played with “vigor and energy.” That’s what happens when you become accustomed to winning. LSU hasn’t enjoyed that feeling lately, which is why Johnson said the Tigers “weren’t very good (and) weren’t very competitive” against North Texas. As a result, the Mean Green beat a SEC opponent for the first time in 24 tries.

But once a Tiger always a Tiger, and so Jones couldn’t leave the PMAC without giving LSU fans some hope.

“I can assure you they will get it going when the chemistry gets together,” Jones said of LSU. ‘Let their experience catch up to their talent level (and) some great things are going to happen for this LSU basketball team."