PITTSBURGH — For better or worse, the LSU men’s basketball team will get to end its season in the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years.
Whatever the outcome, it won’t be just the end. It’ll also be a beginning, a launching point if you will, to next season and beyond for a program that has increased its win total each season under third-year coach Johnny Jones while averaging just more than 20 victories a season.
While the goal for the past five months has been to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament’s 68-team field, which LSU accomplished Sunday when it was put into the bracket as the No. 9 seed in the East regional, lots of Tigers fans are already looking ahead.
Of course, LSU (22-10) has some work left to do this season, starting with Thursday’s 8:20 p.m. matchup against eighth-seeded North Carolina State (20-13) in Consol Energy Center, before the 2015-16 campaign comes to the forefront.
“It’s in the back of my mind, but I still have some goals this year,” LSU junior guard Keith Hornsby said Monday, less than 24 hours after the Tigers learned they made the tournament. “(Next year) is exciting to think about because we will certainly be highly touted, but we have some unfinished business here.”
Winning one game, maybe two, and getting to the Sweet 16 regional semifinals or beyond may be the only thing that can put the chatter about next season on the back burner, but even that’s highly doubtful.
The excitement comes from what will likely be a top-10 recruiting class, led by the nation’s top player as well as the second-best shooting guard in the country and the transfer into the program of Louisiana’s top prospect from a year ago.
With the influx of talent, especially from 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward Benny Simmons, who has already signed, and having a strong nucleus of players from this year’s squad coming back, Jones said he believes it’s another step in the right direction for his program.
“Each year, we’ve shown some progress and have gotten considerably better when you look at where we are now,” Jones said. “We’re NCAA tournament-bound with players that are engaged and have bought in and really taken ownership of this team.
“They’re really excited about what’s going to take it to another level,” he added. “They’re not only excited about what’s going on now, but they have their sights set on the future. It paints the type of picture you need when you start talking about the here, the now and the future of LSU basketball.”
Simmons, the boys Naismith Trophy winner, should be joined by guard Antonio Blakeney, who committed in January, and possibly guard Malik Newman, the nation’s No. 4 prospect who lists LSU among his five final college choices.
On top of that, 6-7 forward Craig Victor, a New Orleans native and the state’s No. 1 recruit a year ago, transferred to LSU from Arizona and will be eligible as a sophomore when the fall semester is completed in early December.
With Hornsby and fellow guards Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson coming back, Jones said he’ll have the upper class leadership he didn’t have this year since Hornsby and Josh Gray, both juniors, were only in their first year in the program after transferring.
It could run even deeper, however, if All-Southeastern Conference forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey decide to bypass the NBA draft and return for their junior seasons.
“We’ll deal with those situations when the time gets here, but we certainly don’t know right now,” Jones said. “It’s not anything that really crosses our minds. The only time it does is in the midst of recruiting because you have to be prepared.”
While getting one or both back would enhance their chances of taking another big step on the road to building his program, LSU will have some pieces, certainly more than Jones had when he returned in 2012.
He said the NCAA tournament was certainly a goal for his first season, but LSU, which won 19 games and went 9-9 in the conference, didn’t have the résumé.
A year ago, the Tigers won 20 games — including one in the National Invitation Tournament — but were left yearning for more after not getting an invite from the NCAA.
“Throughout this whole process, we had to make sure we were getting the type of people that really fit the system and give us an opportunity to have success over the long haul,” Jones said. “We had to make decisions along the way to try and get us to that point, and we feel like we’ve made great progress.
“We’ve continued on a good pace,” he said. “You look for those stepping stones, and the NIT served a tremendous purpose for that … the experience we gained out there. These guys got a little bit of a feel for what the postseason is like, and it’s great to be at that next step so quick in year three.”
Just like a year ago, Quarterman said the NCAA tournament should be a springboard for the Tigers — especially with what’s coming in to the program.
“We’ve made a lot of strides under coach Jones and we’re here in the NCAA tournament, so we’re very excited about next year and after that,” he said. “He keeps getting great recruits, so there’s nothing but good stuff to come for our team in the future.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.