NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Cruising around Baton Rouge, the softly rounded cheeks and easy grin of LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones peered down from billboards.
The image of Jones in a gray suit and a ball pressed between his palms conveyed a message of hint of nostalgia: The former Tigers guard and longtime assistant under Dale Brown cradled the program’s fortunes in his grasp.
The pitch came with an implicit risk, though.
What if the native son, returned from more than a decade at North Texas, failed to revive his alma mater or draw the flock to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center?
“You may have had some out there that wasn’t sure,” Jones said Wednesday. “There was a coaching change, and some people may not have had the ability to separate the player from the coach.”
Evidence is anecdotal, but apprehension appears on the wane as LSU (18-11), which enters the SEC tournament as a No. 9 seed, faces eighth-seeded Georgia (15-16) at noon Thursday at Bridgestone Arena and in contention for a second-consecutive berth in the NIT.
Pegged to finish 11th in the preseason, notions of postseason play were farfetched in January after LSU stalked off the floor at Stegeman Coliseum after a 68-57 loss to the Bulldogs — a defeat dropping LSU to an 0-4 start in the SEC.
And it exceeded expectations when Jones arrived in April 2012 after Justin Hamilton declared for the NBA draft, coach Trent Jones left for TCU, and guard Ralston Turner transferred to North Carolina State.
Since then, Jones has taken the long view when handling the Tigers.
“I didn’t have to change the message,” Jones said. “We needed to evaluate exactly where we were, and if it was a setback, we need to evaluate what transpired, and what we did and need to do moving forward so we didn’t get too low.”
It figures senior guard Charles Carmouche, whose career is defined by being in flux during stops at UNO, Memphis and LSU, succinctly laid out what gnawed at the Tigers.
“We weren’t playing our best basketball,” Carmouche said. “It was just a learning experience for us, a new team, new coach, just trying to gel, playing in a new conference, and we kind of picked it up toward the end.”
Practical matters also played a role.
Forward Johnny O’Bryant III fully healed from a left calf strain and right high-ankle sprain to post 14 double-doubles, landing All-SEC honors.
Point guard Anthony Hickey, suspended for an exhibition game and two regular-season games for violating team rules, embraced accountability and brought a measure of stability as the Tigers’ best on-ball defender.
Meanwhile, freshman Malik Morgan emerged as a reliable contributor, and senior center Andrew Del Piero proved to be more than a reclamation project — transforming from him toting a tuba into a big man providing 22 starts and roughly 3 minutes a night.
On Wednesday, Jones was lobbed a question about whether LSU had “maxed out” the capacity of the 10 scholarship players comprising its roster.
“These guys have continued to really amaze me,” Jones said. “I wasn’t sure at the beginning of the season and where we would be today. I’ll tell you, we’re a lot further along than I thought we’d be.”
If anybody can empathize, it’s Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose squad opened up 2-7, dropped nonconference games to Youngstown State and Iona and started SEC play at 1-4. Four seasons into his tenure, Fox was saddled with rebuilding the program a second time after it reached the 2011 NCAA tournament — losing as No. 10 seed to seventh-seeded Washington — when stars in guard Travis Leslie and forward Trey Thompkins declared for the NBA draft.
The result: The Bulldogs roster is loaded with nine underclassmen, and only sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — the SEC Player of the Year — has emerged as a reliable scorer.
After starting 1-4, the Bulldogs reeled off five victories in a row, capped by a 52-46 win over Texas A&M on Feb. 9 to push into the middle of the SEC standings.
Part of the solution was finding complementary scoring alongside Caldwell-Pope, who averages 18.0 points per game, but Fox framed it different. Caldwell-Pope wasn’t playing efficient offensively, while the rest of the young roster was struggling to slow foes.
“Really, all that we’ve done is get those guys back to a level offensively that’s been consistent and then our players have all improved,” Fox said.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are vague when describing what brought about their metamorphosis. Perhaps it was simply unwittingly copying LSU’s template in narrowing their focus — embodying the well-worn cliché of taking each game as it comes on the schedule.
The early stages of potential reclamation work at LSU drew praise from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“Johnny is doing yeoman’s work,” Calipari said. “What he’s got that team doing and achieving is unbelievable.”
The larger issue, though, is whether a potentially hesitant fan base will be convinced the program, which once made 15-consecutive NCAA tournament trips, is on the mend.
The Tigers display a penchant for comebacks, rallying from double-digit deficits for victories over Seton Hall, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and capped by a three-overtime defeat of Alabama.
Rarely have they been run out of the gym, either, going 6-4 in games decided by five points and only losing by 20-plus points once when Florida left the PMAC on Jan. 12 with a 74-52 victory.
Yet, the program ranked ninth in average home attendance at 7,653 per game — roughly 57 percent of the PMAC’s capacity.
“People have a tendency to look at that as an extension of the coach,” Jones said of LSU’s playing style. “That’s what we preach, that’s we teach, and I’m hopeful that’s what our fan base sees.
“The separation may have come from people being able to see how I run my program — that I’m my own person — and how we play.”