LSU hoops carries high expectations into 2015-16

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Top recruit Ben Simmons. Photo by LSUsports.net.

There hasn't been this much buzz heading into an LSU basketball season since the Tigers made a run to the Final Four in 2007.

That kind of excitement isn't usually expected when you lose two of your best players to the NBA Draft, but things are different.

Though LSU lost Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, they bring in two of the most sought-after high-school recruits in the nation in forward Ben Simmons and guard Antonio Blakeney.

The Tigers had an up-and-down 2014-15.

After starting the year just 3-2, the Tigers went on an eight-game winning streak that included an impressive road win over 16th-ranked West Virginia.

Along with the Mountaineers, LSU topped Florida twice, squeezed by Vanderbilt in overtime, upset 18th-ranked Arkansas on the road and came close to knocking off top-ranked Kentucky.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of head-scratching losses.

The Tigers dropped both matchups with Texas A&M and lost to struggling Missouri and Mississippi State. To make things worse, they were upset by Auburn in the SEC Tournament.

Despite the inconsistency, LSU finished the year with a solid 22-10 record and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.

Once the Tigers got to the dance, they looked prime for a run as they raced out to a 16-point lead against NC State. However, after missing their final 12 field-goal attempts and final six free throws, LSU dropped the game on a last-second layup by the Wolfpack's Beejay Anya.

With Tiger fans' hearts already broken, Martin and Mickey bolted for the NBA.

Both had proven to be LSU's two best players. Martin finished his sophomore season averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game, while Mickey averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and a nation-leading four blocks per contest.

Coming off such a defusing tournament loss and faced with the tall task of replacing such great players is usually a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately for LSU, Simmons and Blakeney are here for the rescue.

Though Simmons is a true freshman, he already has NBA scouts salivating over his skill-set.

The 6-foot-10 forward was the No. 1 national recruit in 2015 and McDonald's All-American. He is fresh off of leading his Montverde Academy squad to three straight national tittles.

Along with Simmons, comes an ultra-talented 6-foot-4 guard in Blakeney. He was 2015's 14th-ranked prospect.

Another impressive freshman that joined the program was former Madison Prep point guard Brandon Sampson. Sampson is fresh off of leading the Chargers to a state championship.

Forward Craig Victor II is also a new face. The 6-foot-9 sophomore is an Arizona transfer.

All of these new players will be infused into a returning Tiger roster that saw plenty of action during their NCAA Tournament run.

Sharp-shooter Keith Hornsby makes his return after averaging 13 points a game in 2015. Hornsby had surgery recently and will have to miss the start of the season, but he is expected to be back by the time conference play rolls around.

Guard Tim Quarterman is also back after averaging 12 points a game last season.

Senior Josh Gray will be looking to improve at point guard after averaging seven points and four assists in 2015, and Jaylin Patterson will be there to give the Tigers another great weapon from behind the 3-point line.

With Martin and Mickey gone, both center Elbert Robinson III and forward Darcy Malone will have to step up for the Tigers at the rim. The two 7-footers both saw limited action last season.

The Tigers' inexperience down low looks to be one of their only weaknesses heading into 2015-16.

LSU's non-conference schedule is far from daunting. Their greatest challenges will be Marquette and possibly NC State. They very well could be undefeated when they visit Vanderbilt on Jan. 2, for their SEC opener.

In the meantime, the 21st-ranked Tigers will host their season opener against Kennesaw State on Monday, Nov. 16.