In his two seasons since returning to LSU as its men’s basketball coach, Johnny Jones had the task of piecing together lineups that could somehow get him through games while trying to build a solid foundation for the program.
By no means was it easy.
Still, Jones was able to win 19 games two years ago and 20 last season, which got the Tigers, who had visions of earning an NCAA tournament berth until the end of the regular season, into the NIT — where they won a first-round game on the road.
This season, with six talented newcomers joining three key returnees, LSU aims to take the next step and reach the NCAA tournament. After a scrimmage and an exhibition win over Division II Morehouse, the journey officially begins at noon Saturday when the Tigers host Gardner-Webb.
While Jones talked about the unknown Thursday, mainly because of the loss of three top players from last year’s 20-14 team, he was eager to see what he has with several lineup combinations to choose from at any given time.
“Not only with the guys we have returning, but the guys who have been added to this team, it gives you a certain level of excitement because of the number of different lineups we can go with,” said Jones, whose 39 wins are the most for an LSU coach in his first two seasons.
“We are young in some spots, but these guys are eager and excited about getting out there and playing,” he said. “I think they have an opportunity to have an edge. It will be different, but we look forward to that challenge.”
The difference he talked about is not having All-Southeastern Conference first-team forward Johnny O’Bryant, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, as well as guards Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey.
Jones replaced them with guards Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, a pair of transfers, and three highly rated freshmen: center Elbert Robinson III, guard Jalyn Patterson and forward Aaron Epps. Also new is sophomore Brian Bridgewater, who wasn’t cleared to play by the NCAA last season.
They join forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin and guard Tim Quarterman, who were key contributors a year ago. Mickey was a preseason All-SEC pick by the media and coaches; Martin was named to the second team.
Still, Jones has warned that this team is a work in progress and that the players, most of whom can play two or three positions, have to build chemistry.
They’ll get a chance to do that with five games in a 10-day stretch starting with Gardner-Webb, which also has a lot of new faces after an 18-15 finish a year ago.
“We absolutely are a (work) in progress right now, and it’s going to take us a little time to jell,” Jones said, noting his top three returnees are sophomores. “Chemistry is going to be important, and we do have a lot of new faces.
“Jordan and Jarell can tell you a lot about the lack of experience (from last year). But the talent level is at a certain level that we look forward to the guys continuing to jell and mesh together. When we do, that’s when we’ll have a lot of fun.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.