In three seasons at his alma mater, LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones has won 19, 20 and 22 games with berths in the NIT and NCAA tournament — the latter the school’s first since 2009. While there has been a natural progression, things didn’t turn out the way he wanted last season with back-to-back losses in the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments. Gone are All-SEC forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, both taken in the first 33 picks of the NBA draft, but Jones returns a solid nucleus as well as the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class — led by Ben Simmons — to push expectations to levels we’ve seldom seen in the middle of the summer.
Now, about halfway between the end of last season and the first exhibition game in November, Jones spoke with The Advocate this week about last season and next season, recruiting, the improving SEC and his team’s exhibition trip to Australia in August.
Mickles: Even though you had a second straight 20-win season and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament, how difficult was it to get over how it ended in the SEC and NCAA tournament?
JONES: The tough setback was probably the SEC tournament (to Auburn) because I thought we were playing well. We had a great season going in, tied for third in the final standings and had the No. 4 seed going in and were competing at a high level. We had a couple injuries, especially Jordan Mickey not playing the previous game at Arkansas and being able to win, now we’re going to the tournament with him and some guys rested. That was a disappointment, having a setback and not finishing that game strong. You have to credit Auburn; they hit some huge shots and made some big plays down the stretch. But we were disappointed because we had some misfortune with a turnover, a shot-clock violation, and at the end of the day still had a chance to win and didn’t.
Getting to the NCAA tournament, we were excited about getting there for the first time since 2009, and it meant a lot, because we had such a young team. We had lost Johnny O’Bryant, an impactful player as a first-team All-Southeastern Conference pick, and Andre Stringer, a great 3-point shooter. So we have only two starters back and to bring in a crew and get to the NCAA tournament, which said a lot considering we won 22 games with six wins in nine conference road games. We played well for 35 minutes (against North Carolina State) and had a lead, and, unfortunately, down the stretch shots didn’t go in for us. They made some difficult shots that were guarded very well, and we misfired and missed some free throws down the stretch and they had an opportunity late in the game to make a big play … and they did.
What goes through your mind in the days and weeks after something like that happens?
It was tough, but what happens when you have the third-youngest team in the SEC, to have as much success as we did, the guys have the ability to learn from those mistakes. We have a number of guys returning from last year’s team that are looking forward to hopefully being in that position next year and able to handle it differently.
We always go back and evaluate it, like we do all of our games, and see how we could have done things differently, or how the game played out. When the game is over, unfortunately, it’s over; you can’t go back. You can’t go back and get that defensive rebound, or knock down that free throw, or hit that layup. There’s nothing you can do but move on. That’s the biggest disappointment.
There was still a sense of accomplishment when the season ended, but you had to get right back at it, right?
Yes, we celebrated it — getting to the tournament — but we know we still have some work to do. The biggest thing for me when we got back last season was making sure we finished up strong with our recruiting, because there was still a lot of excitement with the program even though we didn’t win the national championship. We also had to make sure the guys that were already here finished strong academically, that’s another focus, and we had (center) John Odo graduate and walk across the stage.
Then, we had to make sure that everything was fulfilled for those guys (Mickey and Martin) that had professional aspirations. We wanted to make sure they were able to live out their dreams and to see both those guys have their name called on draft night kind of put an end to last season, and it ended on a very positive note.
Speaking of the draft, NBADraft.net already has three of your players projected as first-round picks next season — Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney and Tim Quarterman. Does it concern you it might put some undue pressure on them and your team considering you’re trying to get ready for your season?
I looked at Kentucky last year, and I’m sure there were a lot of notable players on that draft board last summer from that team. That wasn’t a deterrent for them. Two or three of them made all-conference and four went in the NBA lottery, so excitement builds for a kid like Tim Quarterman, who people wondered why he had a scholarship as a freshman. But through his development, he became an impact player as a sophomore. So now that he’s on somebody’s draft board is exciting for us in knowing that what we’re doing is working and guys know that they can get to their dream from here.
Considering how improved Quarterman was last season, are you confident guys like Aaron Epps and Elbert Robinson III, who didn’t have great freshman years, can make that same kind of jump?
Absolutely. Any time guys make the transition from high school to college, they’ve been in the system and they go through a summer and we look for improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. I think they will certainly make an impact on the program, and you can look at the guys we’ve had in the program and what they’ve been able to do — like Johnny O’Bryant in his second year developed into a draftable player.
How much easier, not easy, has it become to recruit when you have back-to-back 20-win seasons and the third-ranked recruiting class in the nation?
One of the questions we get is, “You guys have pros?” Or, “How many guys have you sent to the pros?” We’ve only been here three years, and we have three guys drafted and that speaks volumes because not a lot of programs can say that. I think we had as many guys drafted this year than both the Big 12 and Big East conferences. When you look at those numbers, it’s a great positive because people look at us and say, “Hey, they develop their talent, they’re winning, they’re competing at a high level,” so it’s encouraging. That’s why a lot of interest continues to be shown. When you have a guy like Ben Simmons coming in and see where he’s already being projected to go next year, it helps in terms of our recruiting.
The SEC seems like it’s becoming a who’s who of college coaches with a guy like (Kentucky’s) John Calipari there and (Auburn’s) Bruce Pearl coming back (last year) and now this year with (Mississippi State’s) Ben Howland, (Tennessee’s) Rick Barnes and (Alabama’s) Avery Johnson coming in. How competitive is it getting?
We lost some good coaches, like Billy Donovan at Florida taking an NBA job, and we lost Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee two years ago. I think the SEC should be a destination job. It was for Billy for 19 years, and he won two national championships. That says a lot, and the new coaches coming in speak volumes of the level of respect that people have for the SEC. Look at Avery. He was an NBA coach and got to the finals. Rick Barnes and Ben Howland, what they’ve done at this level for a long time speaks volumes for their abilities.
What do you think about Avery Johnson, an old friend of yours, winding up at Alabama?
I knew him when he was a player at Southern, but our relationship really developed when he was coaching the (Dallas) Mavericks. I was at North Texas, and I would go down to watch his teams practice and play and he brought his team to our campus for preseason camp one year. He did a fantastic job there with the Mavericks and almost won a world championship. You take a guy that can work at that level with the attitude and the egos that are involved, and his ability will translate to the college game. He’ll be a fantastic college coach.
You have an exhibition tour of Australia coming up in August, when you’ll play five games against pro teams. What are the benefits of going on that trip?
You get 10 days of practice prior to leaving for the trip, which is invaluable for us considering the guys we lost (Martin and Mickey) and the impact they made, and the new guys that are coming in this year. That’s going to help our chemistry, being able to bond together. Kentucky benefited greatly from going to The Bahamas last year and playing over there and they had a little bit of an edge at the beginning of the season over some of the competition they were playing against.
How big will that be, especially for your three freshmen: Simmons, Blakeney and Brandon Sampson?
It will allow us early on to start putting in our system, what we’re doing offensively and defensively, getting them acclimated to how we practice with the intensity level, and then it’s big for those guys that didn’t have the opportunity to get a lot of minutes last year. It kind of helps develop your bench. You can do a lot of experimenting.
You’re now three years in here. How do you feel about where the program is and where it’s headed?
We’re really excited about where we are, but we also have to understand that we have unfinished business. It’s always an ongoing process. Look at Kentucky last year. They were 38-1, and they feel like they’ve got work to do. So, it’s a never-ending process. Last year was last year, and this is a new year.
We want to improve on what we did a year ago. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and it’s a process. The good thing is, we’ve continued to make positive strides year after year. We got to postseason in our second year and won a game, have had three players drafted, got to the NCAA tournament in Year 3 and then having the third-best overall record in the SEC in those three years. That says a lot.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.