September 01, 2015

(AP) - When Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney arrive at the front doors of LSU's basketball practice courts, the freshmen pass by a bronze statue of Shaquille O'Neal throwing down a two-handed dunk.

Simmons and Blakeney are both projected as 2016 first-round NBA draft picks, so they might not be with the 21st-ranked Tigers for more than one season. But what a season it could be, if it lives up to the hype.

At the very least, the pair have injected LSU basketball with arguably the greatest sense of anticipation since O'Neal played before packed houses in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center from 1989-1992.

''I really hope it's like that,'' Blakeney said. ''We've got that style of play that people like to see - up and down, running, throwing up lobs, everybody getting dunks and stuff, shooting 3s and getting after it. So maybe it will be packed in the PMAC this year.''

The home crowd will get a chance to watch Simmons, just the fourth freshman to be named to The AP preseason All-America team, and Blakeney make their debuts Friday night against McNeese State.

Last year, LSU went 22-11 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, but lost in the opening round - by a point - after blowing a double-digit, second-half lead to North Carolina State. Nonetheless the season continued a three-year trend of improving fortunes since Johnny Jones - a former LSU player who was an assistant during the O'Neal years - was hired to what he has described as his ''dream job.''

Now it appears Jones' recruiting acumen has yielded the closest thing to a dream team LSU has seen in a generation. The Tigers even hosted a practice akin to a ''pro day,'' which NBA scouts from all but two teams attended.

With hype comes pressure, but Jones remembers the days when expectations were high and the PMAC was packed and loud enough to become known as ''Deaf Dome.'' When he was hired, Jones wanted to recapture that. Perhaps this could be the year.

''It's fun. It's exciting. You certainly want to be on the side where people are excited about the program,'' Jones said. ''Our job is to make sure that we can play an exciting style of basketball and make sure that our kids are comfortable or enjoying it.''

The 6-foot-10 Simmons was widely regarded as the best high school basketball player in the nation last season. He was born and raised in Australia, where his American father, David, played professionally for more than a decade. Ben Simmons came to the United States for three years of high school, playing at Montverde Academy in Florida, where last season he averaged 28 points and 11.9 rebounds.

Blakeney was voted Mr. Basketball in Florida after last high school season - ahead of Simmons. Blakeney, who averaged 29 points for Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, was well aware of Simmons' game and said it is no coincidence they wound up teammates at LSU.

''Ben had a lot to do with it because I know how good he can make a team,'' Blakeney said. ''He can really take over a game, but he likes to pass. He's very unselfish. ... I'm a very good shooter.''

Much of LSU's talent, depth and even experience lies in its backcourt, including Blakeney, Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby, Josh Gray, Brandon Sampson, and Jalyn Patterson. So LSU expects to be an up-tempo, high-scoring and pressing team.

LSU has two 7-foot centers on the roster. Elbert Robinson III is a 7-1 sophomore and Darcy Malone is a 7-foot junior. Like Simmons, Malone is from Australia. He started eight games last season while Robinson started four. Both should see far more action this season and the Tigers are counting on some growth in their play.

LSU is also counting on 6-9 forward Craig Victor to be a force in the frontcourt, once he's eligible to play. Victor, once regarded as the top high school player in Louisiana, initially went to Arizona, but played in only eight games before transferring to LSU last winter. He'll be eligible to play after the fall semester ends in December.

The Tigers beat McNeese State 83-72 last November to improve to 23-0 in the series. This Cowboys team, though, will look much different.

McNeese State returns two starters from last season's 15-16 squad, losing top three scorers Desharick Guidry (17.3), Kevin Hardy (13.5) and Keelan Garrett (10.8).

"This will probably be the biggest challenge since I've been here," Dave Simmons, in his 10th season as Cowboys coach, told the school's official website. "Pretty much trying to figure out a whole new team.

"We've got more talent from these freshmen than we've had in quite some time. (Jarren) Greenwood is the complete package. He can handle the ball, shoot it, and pass it. He's college ready and can play in a lot of places. (James) Harvey is one of the best pure shooters we've had in a long time."

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