Top five storylines
Last season’s SEC surge and an impact recruiting class have the Tigers on the periphery of the national radar. They’re on the same edge of the NCAA tournament picture as November opens, but plenty could change in the next four-plus months:
1. It’s March or bust
A four-year absence from the NCAA tournament feels longer. The program is stuck in limbo until the drought ends.
Evidence exists for optimism: a top-10 recruiting class, the return of junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III and a capable veteran cast.
Picked to finish fourth in a slightly stronger Southeastern Conference, LSU also snagged votes in the national preseason polls.
A projection right now would slot coach Johnny Jones’ crew anywhere between a No. 10 and No. 12 seed, though. That’s prime bubble territory.
An NIT berth would be progress but, given the hype around this band of newcomers and the pieces in place, it might feel like a failure.
2. Jarell Martin, one and done?
For now, no. Check back in early April, though.
It’s expected O’Bryant won’t stick around, but Martin’s decision-making process could prove interesting.
Right now, the freshman is the No. 35 prospect in ESPN analyst Chad Ford’s top 100 — or a late first-round choice in the NBA draft.
Martin’s athleticism at his size is rare, but he needs polish inside and toughness. Still, if he shows scouts he has added to a perimeter skill set besides spot-up shooting, then he might have a decision to make. NBA front offices have shown they’ll draft on potential.
3. Reshuffled rotation
The Tigers can rotate up to 11 players, flexibility that allows Jones to craft a lineup dictated by matchups.
If LSU rolls out a quintet of Malik Morgan, Shavon Coleman, Martin, O’Bryant and Tim Quarterman, every cast member is taller than 6-foot-4. Or it can swap in Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey, a duo who can stalk passing lanes while their taller peers apply pressure.
LSU has the depth to press for longer stretches, too. Last season, the Tigers’ 64.7 possessions per game ranked 10th among power conference programs — a pace they could further accelerate in 2013.
4. Beef on the block
O’Bryant fought a lonely battle last season.
Serving as the Tigers’ lone true post player, he saw 28.2 percent of possessions routed to him. And he responded with 15 double-doubles.
But O’Bryant was sapped at season’s end. Now he has help.
Martin’s versatility can coax defenders out of the lane. Freshman Jordan Mickey, a top-40 recruit, is a polished finisher at the rim and working on his face-up game. Junior-college transfer John Odo averaged 14.3 rebounds to lead the NJCAA. Oh, and there’s 7-foot Aussie Darcy Malone.
For a team that struggled on the glass, depth behind O’Bryant is vital.
5. Where’s the dividends?
So, when we will know what LSU has on its hands? It could be awhile.
The nonconference schedule isn’t laughable, but it’s not a slate full of chances for marquee wins to enhance the Tigers’ NCAA tournament résumé.
January will offer up tea leaves.
LSU draws Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky in the first three weeks of SEC play, all potential NCAA tournament teams. By then, Jones might have at least settled on a couple of starting stalwarts, too.
If the Tigers exit that month with a 15-4 record and a clearly defined rotation, then February’s docket allows them to potentially pad the victory total.
There’s not a lot of sizzle.
LSU opens at Massachusetts, a potential bubble team. They need to get by Saint Joseph’s to likely face No. 13 Memphis in the Old Spice Classic. Outside of those games, the Tigers under-scheduled.
A young team might explain it, but LSU might end up padding its résumé with empty calories. The Tigers might, for example, enter SEC play at 10-2 without a quality win.
The result: no margin for error in the SEC. There can’t be a slip-up at South Carolina, for example, because a quality nonconference win won’t offset it.
Also, LSU will have to find a way to swipe a couple of victories against Tennessee, Kentucky or Florida. Two would be optimal. Beating Missouri (Jan. 21) and a victory at Alabama (Jan. 25) would help.
Ideally, LSU upsets visiting Kentucky in late January. If not, Jones and Co. might need a win at UK or Florida to give the NCAA selection committee something to think about.
Five players to watch
The sniper: G Andre Stringer, Sr.
The Tigers’ best perimeter shooter can now stay full-time at the off guard spot after ranking second in the SEC with a 40.9 percentage behind the 3-point arc. Yet Stringer wasn’t a volume shooter. His 164 attempts were only 11th in the conference, a tally that ranked second on LSU’s roster behind guard Anthony Hickey. Johnny O’Bryant’s decision to stick around and lob kickouts helps. Stringer’s quick release could prove vital on secondary fastbreaks.
The phenom: F Jarell Martin, Fr.
A top-five talent at his position, the Baton Rouge native is the centerpiece of LSU’s top-10 recruiting class. Martin already has packed 20 pounds onto his frame for rugged action in the lane, but his athleticism is perfect for coach Johnny Jones’ open floor game. Martin oozes potential, considering he only played two years at Madison Prep, but watching him snag an inbound alley-oop — similar to what he did in the McDonald’s All-American Game — illustrates why scouts salivate.
The program’s face: F Johnny O’Bryant III, Jr.
The All-SEC big man needs to show NBA scouts some consistency. O’Bryant, who suffered from nagging early-season injuries, posted 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last year. Expect the production to expand. Adding top-50 recruits in Martin and Jordan Mickey can ease double teams. Juco transfer John Odo should help with board work and post defense. O’Bryant has slimmed down, too, which should help his stamina as he tries to carry LSU to the NCAA tournament.
The glue guy: F Shavon Coleman, Sr.
On a patched-together roster last season, Coleman played in the lane. Not in 2013: He slides back to his natural swingman spot as a utilityman at the top of LSU’s press or pestering guards on defensive switches. Even out of position, he averaged 5.9 rebounds — a trait that should make up for the backcourt’s struggles to do so last season. He was also a sneaky scorer, putting up 10.5 points a night, including 24 against Georgia in the SEC tournament.
The thief: G Anthony Hickey, Jr.
Few players were better at creating turnovers: His 2.9 steals per game ranked third nationally, but most of those came off the ball. Instead, Hickey played a safety of sorts, reading the eyes and shoulders of foes lofting passes. There’s also peril. Hickey committed a foul on 3.3 percent of defensive possessions — a relatively average rate. Tweaks to hand-check rules may mean more whistles.