It must have seemed like the 2015-16 season would never arrive for the LSU men’s basketball team.
Sparked by a numbing 66-65 last-second loss to North Carolina State in the NCAA tournament and buoyed by the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class — topped by the consensus No. 1 player in the land — the Tigers couldn’t wait.
But 239 long days after playing a game that counted, the most anticipated season in years for the LSU basketball program and its fans is at last here.
With it come great expectations, which No. 21 LSU has fully embraced despite losing All-Southeastern first-team forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey to the NBA draft.
Those expectations come from the return of guards Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby, Jalyn Patterson and Josh Gray and the arrival of three freshmen who were among the top 39 recruits on the ESPN 100 list — forward Ben Simmons and shooting guards Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson.
“It’s fun … it’s exciting,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of the excitement that’s been building since the Tigers signed Simmons, the top player in the nation, a year ago Thursday. “You certainly want to be on the side where people are excited about the program and looking forward to the season.
“You certainly don’t want to be on the other side where you’re dreading the start of the season. I can tell you the guys couldn’t be more excited.”
While Jones’ third season ended abruptly after the Tigers held a 14-point second-half lead against North Carolina State, the hype that began with the signing of Simmons and a commitment from Blakeney — both McDonald’s All-Americans — skyrocketed.
Sampson, Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball last season at Madison Prep, added to it when he decommitted from St. John’s and decided to stay home and follow in Martin’s large footsteps.
Simmons, Blakeney and Sampson played extensively on a five-game exhibition tour of Australia before the fall semester began, which only added to the excitement.
Jones said Wednesday that season-ticket sales were the highest since a young Shaquille O’Neal was swatting away opponents’ shots and attacking the Pete Maravich Assembly Center goals with rim-rattling dunks.
Again, Jones likes the fact that his team — even though 42.8 percent of its scoring and 47.4 percent of its rebounding from last season left with Martin and Mickey — is capable of another big year and NCAA tournament appearance.
At least those are the expectations.
“Again, you’d much rather be on the side of high expectations with people thinking you’re going to be very good,” Jones said. “There are reasons for that. But our job is to make sure that we can play an exciting style of basketball and make sure our kids are comfortable and enjoying it.”
Quarterman, Hornsby, Patterson and Gray are back to run Jones’ up-tempo offense, which will be helped even more by Simmons, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound point forward who’s just as happy dribbling and passing the ball as he is dunking it or rebounding.
Blakeney and Sampson should also fit in well along with Arizona transfer Craig Victor, a 6-9 power forward who should help make up for the loss of Martin and Mickey’s rebounding when he becomes eligible Dec. 13.
Hornsby, the team’s best 3-point shooter and top returning scorer from last season at 13.4 points per game, will miss the first month of the season after having minor surgery for an undisclosed ailment last week.
The good news is Hornsby could be ready to return about the time Victor joins the team before the SEC schedule begins on Jan. 2.
Throw in 7-1 center Elbert Robinson III, who Jones said has shown great improvement from a disappointing freshman season and could be a huge help inside, and the Tigers could be ready to meet those lofty expectations.
“We’ve got to make sure they understand it’s a process,” Jones said. “They’ve got to make sure they enjoy the moment, and understand that it’s a journey. If they understand all those things, and it’s a long season, we’ll be in great shape.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.