In a corner of Johnny Jones’ office, next to the large window where he can look out and see the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in the distance, hangs a poster of Vince Lombardi’s mantra, “What it takes to be No. 1.”
“Winning is not a sometime thing,” Lombardi said. “It’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Under Jones, the former LSU player turned assistant turned head basketball coach, LSU has made a habit of winning. He has won 80 games in four seasons. Even a sportswriter can figure out that’s 20 wins a year, which is supposedly college basketball’s waterline for success.
But the past two seasons and their combined 41 wins have failed to satisfy a swath of the LSU fan base. Maybe it’s a disgruntled majority. Maybe it’s a boisterous minority.
A one-and-done flameout in last year’s NCAA tournament was a disappointment to some degree for all concerned. And a lack of postseason appearance (more on that later) after this 19-14 campaign left LSU by Jones’ own admission “short of the mark of where we wanted to be,” especially on a team that included the likely No. 1 NBA draft pick.
Jones contends he was dealt a tough hand by former coach Trent Johnson. Johnson posted losing seasons two of his last three campaigns at LSU and left for TCU (where he was fired this month) after going 18-15.
Jones points to bringing in and/or developing top-shelf talent like Johnny O’Bryant (a Johnson recruit), Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and of course this year’s dynamic freshman duo, Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney.
“To do what we’ve been able to do, I’m excited about that,” Jones said.
At the same time, Jones acknowledges that expectations for LSU basketball are on a different plane than those for LSU football and baseball. The football team went 9-3, and Les Miles nearly got fired. The baseball team won the Southeastern Conference and went to the College World Series last year, and no one campaigned for that team to rank among LSU’s all-time best. Six CWS titles sets a high bar.
The bar for LSU basketball isn’t that high. There have been titanic stars — Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Pettit, Chris Jackson — and four Final Fours. But the Tigers have also spent years as a cellar dweller and an afterthought. Basketball’s feast-or-famine existence and baseball’s steady run as a national power have made men’s hoops LSU’s No. 3 sport behind baseball and king football.
That isn’t likely to change any time soon. But Jones to his credit acknowledges that it’s completely fair for LSU basketball to face the same high expectations as the school’s other “big three” sports.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We want the fan base here to have more expectations than not.”
The coach and this writer will have to agree to disagree about whether LSU should have declined a likely NIT bid. Jones argued his team was too diminished to contend for victory without an injured Keith Hornsby and an ailing Blakeney. I argue you should always play in the NIT no matter if you have to use walk-ons.
Still, it must be said if Jones was all about résumé polishing, he would have gleefully gone to the NIT. He could have told his detractors that he had taken LSU to three straight postseason tournaments, the first time for that since John Brady’s Tigers went to five straight from 2002-06.
But Jones declined, saying he acted in the best interests of his players, not himself. Admirable, but at the same time, Jones will may have to live with the consequences of an empty résumé line.
Jones has argued that his program has been hampered by youth. O’Bryant’s early departure left a hole in 2014-15 that Martin and Mickey couldn’t quite fill. Martin and Mickey’s early NBA draft entries definitely left a void, especially on defense around the basket, that Simmons’ considerable talent couldn’t mask.
The need, Jones said, is to have a blend of experience and newcomers.
“You want to be a team like North Carolina with freshmen through seniors,” he said. “That’s program-building. But it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Jones has done enough at LSU to earn the right to keep program-building. Though he bristled at the idea of receiving an ultimatum for winning next season by LSU’s administration, you have to believe the Tigers must find a way to successfully move forward without Simmons, Hornsby and Tim Quarterman for Jones to keep his office with nice view.
Lombardi beckons: “It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.”
“I hate losing more than I love winning,” Jones said.
On that point, LSU’s basketball coach and its fans may share common ground.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.