Going into its first season without big men Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who took 42.8 percent of LSU’s scoring and 47.4 percent of rebounding last season to the NBA, the Tigers coaching staff knew it would need somebody or bodies to help out in a big way.
They knew what they’d be getting from 6-foot-10 forward Ben Simmons, the nation’s top recruit, and what they expect to get from 6-9 forward Craig Victor, an Arizona transfer, when he becomes eligible Dec. 13.
The real question: Who else would step up and contribute down low from a pool of candidates that included centers Elbert Robinson III and Darcy Malone, and forwards Aaron Epps and Brian Bridgewater?
While it’s still rather early, the results have been positive for LSU (2-0) going into an 8 p.m. Thursday game with South Alabama (1-1) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
After getting a total of 4.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game from those four backups a season ago, they’re off to a much better start — especially Robinson and Epps, a pair of sophomores who impressed in a 91-69 beating of Kennesaw State on Monday night.
The 7-foot-1 Robinson scored six points and pulled down five rebounds, which came after he had a career-high eight points and four rebounds in the opener against McNeese State.
Against Kennesaw State, the 6-9 Epps had two career-bests with 10 points and seven rebounds and added two blocked shots after getting into early foul trouble in the first game.
“Night in and night out, we want our post guys to be productive,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said Wednesday. “We want to make sure they do a great job of controlling the paint area on both ends of the floor — offensively and defensively.
They’re doing that so far.
Robinson is averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, while Epps, who didn’t score or grab a rebound after fouling out in seven minutes against McNeese, is getting 5.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest.
Bridgewater is averaging 3.0 points and 3.5 rebounds, bringing that trio’s totals to 15.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per outing.
Robinson is starting to come into his own after Jones said he lost too much weight last season, going from 310 pounds to 265, and wasn’t really ready to contribute.
After playing in 11 games with four starts a year ago, he’s making a case to get more minutes this season after adding some muscle to his frame.
“A lot of it is confidence,” Robinson said. “I’m getting the ball and getting opportunities to score the ball. I just feel like when I get touches, I’m making the right plays on the court.”
While he knows the Tigers have enough scorers in Simmons, guards Tim Quarterman, Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson and Keith Hornsby, when he returns from minor surgery, Robinson said he doesn’t mind doing the dirty work down low.
Neither does Epps, who got 18 minutes of playing time against Kennesaw State after drawing five fouls in his seven minutes against McNeese.
“I had to calm myself down,” Epps said of his improvement from the first game to the second. “I was trying to block every shot (against McNeese), and the refs were calling them.
“I felt like I had to continue to play hard without fouling and play much smarter. On offense, I knew I couldn’t force anything and get the shots I normally get — and they started falling for me.”
Guard Josh Gray said he can see the improvement in both big men.
“Both of those guys are playing big roles for us, they’ve improved tremendously since last year,” he said. “They’re working hard, and they’re focused and locked in. They can be a real help to our team this year.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.