With the early departure of All-American Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman in the past week, and seniors Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray as well, the LSU basketball team will have a much different look in November.
The Tigers will have at least three new starters, perhaps four, depending on what decision freshman Antonio Blakeney makes over the next month or two.
But LSU coach Johnny Jones said Monday it doesn’t mean his team won’t have a chance at putting together a successful season or have an opportunity to get back to the NCAA tournament after a disappointing 19-14 campaign.
For reference, Jones went back to his playing days at LSU in the early 1980s when Georgia coach Hugh Durham had a roster full of talented players led by superstar forward Dominique Wilkins.
But in 1982, the Bulldogs stumbled to a 19-12 overall mark with a 10-8 Southeastern Conference record and finished sixth in the league, which then consisted of only 10 schools.
The next year, Georgia improved to 24-10 and made an improbable run to the 1983 Final Four before losing in the national semifinals without Wilkins, who left school early and was the third pick of the 1982 NBA draft.
While that doesn’t guarantee his team a Final Four spot, or anything else, Jones can hope after deciding not to accept a postseason invite when his team didn’t make the 68-team field.
“I’m excited about the group that’s returning,” he said. “And we’ve got a good nucleus of guys coming in — be it junior college or high school guys we think will fit in with what we want to do.”
Still, a lot depends on what Blakeney does.
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard, who averaged 18.6 points per game over the final 11 games with six outings of at least 20 points in that stretch, could join Simmons and Quarterman as early entrants for the NBA draft.
If he declares by the April 24 deadline, Blakeney would have an opportunity to take his name out by May 25 if he doesn’t hire an agent.
If he does come back, Blakeney would join junior forward Craig Victor as the returning starters even though junior guard Jalyn Patterson started 15 games. Blakeney and Victor ranked third and fourth on the team with 12.6 and 11.5 points, respectively.
Patterson was inserted into the lineup after Hornsby aggravated a sports hernia injury on Feb. 20 and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Patterson, who dealt most of the season with a knee injury, also started the final 10 games of his freshman season a year ago.
Blakeney, Victor, Patterson and guard Brandon Sampson would form the nucleus of the team that will have to rely on improved play from two other juniors — forward Aaron Epps and center Elbert Robinson — as well as two seniors in forward Brian Bridgewater and center Darcy Malone.
Epps, Robinson, Bridgewater and Malone have had minimal impact so far, but Jones is hoping the light goes on in what figures to be an important offseason for the program.
He said Epps and Robinson are capable of developing into competitive players in the league.
“With that group, we’ll have some juniors and seniors, which will give us stability in the program,” said Jones, who just completed his fourth season at the school. “All of those guys played in an NCAA tournament (in 2015).”
Over the past three seasons, Jones has had five players — juniors Johnny O’Bryant and Quarterman, sophomores Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, and Simmons — leave early for the NBA.
In addition to the group of returnees, Jones adds two junior-college prospects in Branden Jenkins and Duop Reath, who’ll have a chance to contribute immediately after starring at Lee College in Baytown, Texas.
Jenkins, a 6-4 guard whom Jones described as a “hard-nosed defender,” averaged 15.6 points a game and shot 50.9 percent from the field. Reath, a 6-10 forward, averaged 14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots.
The other signees are former University High teammates Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims, and Australian Kieran Hayward.
The 6-4 Mays, who played his senior season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, could vie with Patterson and Jenkins for the starting point guard spot or play the two-guard position.
“It’s going to be about the chemistry with the group of guys coming in, especially if we have the balance of shooters and ball-handlers and low-post scorers,” Jones said. “They’re multidimensional that can play several spots, so it’s more exciting for us. That’s what this team is building toward.”