No one can accuse LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones of not being an optimist.
Though his Tigers this season will be without basketball’s newest young star, Ben Simmons, and two other key veteran starters, Jones said his 2016-17 team will be improved in terms of its experience.
“We’re looking forward to the challenges we’ll be faced with,” Jones said Monday during the annual midsummer Southeastern Conference basketball teleconference. “We’ll have five juniors. We’ve been one of the younger teams in the country. These juniors will help us with our experience.”
Despite the loss of Simmons after his freshman season — he was the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Thursday by the Philadelphia 76ers — undrafted guard Tim Quarterman, who would have been a senior, and outgoing senior Keith Hornsby, the Tigers return a veteran nucleus.
That group includes junior guard Jalyn Patterson, center Elbert Robinson, forward Craig Victor and forward Aaron Epps. Forward Brad Bridgewater could return for his junior season but is undecided.
LSU’s top returning scorer is sophomore guard Antonio Blakeney, who averaged 12.6 points per game last season behind Simmons (19.2 ppg) and Hornsby (13.1).
Another Tiger underclassman guard that Jones said is ready to blossom is sophomore Brandon Sampson.
Big things were expected of Sampson after LSU’s tour of Australia last summer, but he ended up with just five starts and averaged only 4.0 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.
“I thought when we went to Australia, Brandon was one of our top three players,” Jones said. “Unfortunately when we came back he battled a little bit of an injury and he struggled to get back in the rotation.
“But he’s had a tremendous offseason. He’ll make a huge impact with Keith Hornsby being gone. He’s an outstanding shooter.”
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Praise for the SEC
Several coaches were quick to laud the SEC’s efforts to place more manpower behind men’s basketball to try to improve what has long been one of the conference’s most lethargic sports.
Recently, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey hired former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as a men’s basketball consultant and named Dan Leibovitz, men’s basketball administrator for the American Athletic Conference, as associate commissioner for SEC men’s basketball.
“Commissioner Sankey asked for us to give him a year to figure things out and he’s definitely done that,” said Alabama coach and former Southern basketball star Avery Johnson.
“Commissioner Sankey has done a tremendous job of hiring people to put more of a focus on basketball,” Jones said. “Mike Tranghese has a great reputation and hiring Dan will help in a league like this with the resources we have.”
Also joining the SEC as coordinator of men’s basketball officials is Denham Springs native Mark Whitehead.
“I thought this spring when the commissioner announced Mike was coming aboard that was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “The last two hires take it to another level.
“I think you’re going to see a drastic change in our league in the next couple of years.”
To South Carolina coach Frank Martin, the hires signal a renewed dedication to SEC basketball.
“Our league doesn’t get the credit we deserve,” he said. “What league has had more players drafted the last 10 years than the SEC?
“We have to do a better job on our own campuses in believing in our product and promoting all the good we’re doing to overcome all the nonsense out there.”
Pearls of irritation
Without question, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was annoyed by the lack of questions during his part of Monday’s teleconference.
After Pearl made some introductory comments, SEC basketball publicist Craig Pinkerton was ready to let Pearl go.
“I delayed a departure to Europe to be on this call,” Pearl said. Pinkerton replied that there was a technical problem allowing reporters on the call to ask questions.
“That’s what you get when you finish 13th” in the SEC, Pearl groused. His Tigers were 11-20 and 5-13 in the SEC last season, only ahead of Missouri (3-15).
Eventually, Pinkerton relayed several emailed questions to Pearl who answered them all, including one about ailing former Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt. Summitt’s health has reportedly been in serious decline related to her case of early onset dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
“Pat Summitt saw things in people they didn’t see in themselves,” said Pearl, who coached at Tennessee with Summitt. “She never apologized to her players for demanding the most from them and getting it.”
Despite the new additions to the SEC administrative staff for men’s basketball, Pinkerton said the conference still plans to release the 2016-17 SEC schedule in early to mid August per usual.