Holding 10 days of practice in early August, before a 13-day exhibition tour of Australia, was certainly advantageous to the LSU men’s basketball team.
It gave the Tigers a leg up on their preparations for the 2015-16 season, which officially begins Monday with the first full-scale practice that will kick off Johnny Jones’ fourth season as coach.
It’s one of the most anticipated LSU seasons in years, with the addition of three of the nation’s top 40 recruits — a heralded class topped by 6-foot-10 forward Ben Simmons — to blend in with eight scholarship returnees.
While the process began back before the fall semester got underway, Jones and his staff — which includes David Patrick and new assistants Al Pinkins and Brendan Suhr — are looking forward to the real start of the season.
That means getting the team ready for a Nov. 6 exhibition with Southwest Baptist and the regular-season opener against McNeese State a week later.
“Having that opportunity to practice before going over to Australia was very beneficial to us,” Jones said Friday, “but we’re looking forward to the first day of practice Monday. There is a lot of anticipation and excitement leading up to that practice, so we’re excited.”
All-Southeastern Conference forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey moved on to the NBA after two seasons, but Jones is confident he has the talent to take another step upward after leading LSU to a 22-11 record and the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.
Under Jones, the Tigers’ win total has increased in each of his three seasons, going 19-12 and 20-14 with an NIT bid before breaking through last year and ending LSU’s five-year NCAA drought.
A last-second 66-65 loss to N.C. State in its first NCAA tournament game — after LSU led by 14 points with a little more than nine minutes to play — brought the season to a cruel and abrupt end. But the heartbreaking loss did nothing to change Jones’ aspirations and goals.
“I can tell you, we thrive on improving from year to year,” he said. “That’s our motivation: Each year, we want to keep taking positive strides. That culminated last year in the NCAA tournament, which was a huge step for us with a young and talented team we had.”
Now, LSU fans are eager to see whether Jones can take the Tigers deeper into the SEC and NCAA tournaments with a new group led by a solid bunch of returnees in guards Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby, Jalyn Patterson and Josh Gray. Also back are forwards Aaron Epps and Brian Bridgewater and centers Darcy Malone and Elbert Robinson III.
To that group, Jones added Simmons and guard Antonio Blakeney, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, and guard Brandon Sampson, the Madison Prep star who was voted Mr. Basketball by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association.
Simmons was the nation’s No. 1 player on most recruiting lists, while Blakeney was 15th and Sampson 39th on the ESPN 100. ESPN ranked the Tigers’ recruiting class third in the nation behind only Duke and Kentucky.
A native of Australia, Simmons picked up most of the national player of the year awards last winter while leading Montverde (Florida) Academy to a third consecutive national title.
Simmons, who can play all five positions, starred on the Tigers’ trip to his native country. He led the team in almost every category — points (20.0), rebounds (9.0), assists (5.4), steals (3.6) and blocked shots (2.2) — even though he committed 5.0 turnovers per game.
Quarterman, a junior who became the starting point guard a month into last season, averaged 16.4 points as LSU went 3-2 against Australian pros. Also averaging in double figures were Blakeney (13.8), Hornsby (12.2) and Sampson (11.8).
But it all starts again Monday.
“We’re excited about having a bunch of guys back with some NCAA tournament experience under their belts,” Jones said. “With them, and the highly rated recruiting class we have, we believe it’ll give us the opportunity to build on the success we had last year.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.