When Johnny Jones arrived at LSU last year, he knew he wanted to install an up-tempo style. So the Tigers played faster in 2012-13, averaging nearly 2.5 more possessions per 40 minutes than 2011-12, according to Kenpom.com, but Jones couldn’t get his team to play quite as fast as he might have liked. LSU didn’t have the depth to sustain his desired pace.
By the end of the season, with four players averaging at least 28 minutes per game, LSU lost three of its final six conference contests to effectively end its chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Tigers ran out of gas.
This season, Jones is confident he has the depth and length to implement his preferred style.
“That’s our plan,” Jones says. “With the depth we have, I think it will give us the opportunity to explore some things we weren’t able to last season.”
One of Jones’ tactical trademarks is a relentless full-court press. The Tigers used it on occasion last season, and with defensive specialist Anthony Hickey leading the charge, LSU forced opponents to turn it over on 21.6 percent of possessions (per Kenpom), one of the top-80 figures in the country.
That press will be bolstered this season by a top-10 recruiting class featuring (according to Rivals) No. 4-ranked forward Jarrell Martin, No. 13-ranked point guard Tim Quarterman and No. 12-ranked power forward Jordan Mickey.
With a balanced group of returnees doing their part, LSU -- strengthened by a top recruiting class -- will be well-equipped to hound opposing teams up the court after made baskets.
“A lot of times last year, we tried to press,” junior forward Johnny O'Bryant III, a first-team All-SEC honoree in 2012-13, says. “But we didn’t have enough bodies to finish games. This year, with the long bodies we brought in, we’ll be a team that can press for long amounts of time.”
With four of its five leading scorers from last season returning, the Tigers should also see improvements on the offensive end of the floor. O’Bryant led LSU with 13.6 points per game and flirted with the idea of entering the NBA draft before deciding to return for at least one more season of college hoops.
While personal factors guided his decision, O’Bryant says the prospect of playing with an NCAA tournament-caliber team made returning to school an easier choice.
“It did, definitely,” he says. “We’re going to have a great team this year. We’re going to have a chance to make a run.”
The SEC may not be the deepest conference this season, but it could be the most top-heavy. Kentucky and Florida will enter 2013-14 as likely top-10 teams, obvious Final Four contenders with deep and talented lineups. Alabama, who returns its top six scorers from last season, and Tennessee, who brings back dominant big man Jarnell Stokes alongside Jordan McRae.
LSU is another possible challenger, and the influx of talented freshmen -- which should allow Jones to ramp up the pace to his liking -- should put the Tigers in the running for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2009.
Asked what his team is capable of achieving this season, O’Bryant replied, “Everything. I think conference championship, NCAA tournament and so on.” Before last season, O'Bryant’s proclamation might have seemed far-fetched. This year, the Tigers and their reinforced up-tempo designs can set their sights much higher.