LSU moves on from Simmons era seeking balance, chemistry
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) LSU coach Johnny Jones might need the Tigers to considerably exceed expectations if he wants to keep his so-called dream job much longer.
Jones doesn't deny that failing to make the NCAA Tournament last season was a disappointment in light of the fact that the Tigers roster featured the NBA's top 2016 draft choice , Ben Simmons.
But Jones also stresses injuries to key contributors, including guard Keith Hornsby, which in the short-term undermined LSU's ability to win, allowed a number of young players gain experience in high-pressure situations. Jones' hope is that with maturity and the chance to assert themselves more following Simmons' departure, LSU's top returning players might develop into a cohesive, balanced and highly competitive force in the Southeastern Conference.
''When you talk about last year's team, you talk about guys who played in (Simmons') shadow,'' Jones said. ''I thought it was healthy for them to play in the environment that they did last year because of - No. 1 - what we got from other teams; Every team that we played last year, we took their best shot.
''We did that with a lot of guys who didn't have a great deal of experience,'' Jones added. ''So from that and the pressure and everything they played under last year, they should have an opportunity to improve and play extremely well this year.''
Simmons averaged 19.2 points and 11.2 rebounds last season, but LSU lacked the depth of talent to consistently make opponents pay for running multiple defenders at Simmons in an effort to contain him.
This season, Jones promises, ''We'll be different. We'll look for different scoring opportunities.''
It remains to be seen how good those opportunities will be. With Simmons gone, LSU was picked to finish 12th in the 14-team SEC when the conference released its preseason coaches' poll.
Jones expects perimeter scoring from Antonio Blakeney, as well as sophomores Brandon Sampson and Jalyn Patterson. Inside they'll rely again on junior Craig Victor, as well as 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Duop Reath, who grew up in Australia after his family fled war in Sudan.
''We know that we have some areas that we're certainly going to have to grow,'' Jones said. ''We're going to do that by committee.''
Some other things to know about LSU:
GETTING DEFENSIVE: While Jones doesn't plan on abandoning the up-tempo style he prefers, he said LSU's defense was deficient last season and he has emphasized a need to improve on that end.
''We feel that chemistry will play a big part of that,'' Jones said. ''You can't be selfish now on the defensive end of the floor. You have to play as a team, and that's a commitment that we have to make as a group.''
HELP INSIDE: Reath is no Ben Simmons, but he's the same height and LSU coaches suggest he has the potential to influence outcomes on both ends of the court with his raw athleticism. He transferred from Lee College (Texas), where he averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.
''He's done a great job of filling in and filling something that we feel like we missed from last year - a rim protector,'' Jones said, adding that Reath's ability to run and shoot gives him an opportunity to stretch opposing defenses.
BLAKENEY'S SLATE: During his final 11 games last season, Blakeney averaged about 18 points - all against SEC competition. If he can sustain that this season, he'll be in the mix for an All-SEC selection. An All-SEC freshman last year, Blakeney is also expected to emerge as a locker room leader.
SAMPSON'S CHALLENGE: Coaches have praised Sampson for working hard this summer and looking like a player who can contribute consistently after failing to live up to his recruiting hype as a freshman. LSU wants Sampson, one of its best ball-handlers, to be the type of dynamic scorer who is as likely to pull up from outside as drive to the hoop.
NEWCOMERS: LSU is hoping two freshmen from Baton Rouge - guards Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims - will contribute this season. More help could come if Branden Jenkins, a transfer who averaged 15.6 points and made 50 steals in junior college last year, recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery in time for the second half of the season.