Still stinging from an abrupt end to a season that began with high aspirations and expectations, LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones took full responsibility Tuesday for a late collapse that kept his team out of the NCAA tournament.
In his season-ending news conference, Jones spoke on a vast array of topics 48 hours after he and his staff elected to not play in a third straight postseason tournament.
That call came after LSU didn’t earn a bid to the NCAA tournament — its fate sealed tight Saturday with a stunning 71-38 loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals.
“We’re a little disappointed we’re here … it was obviously not our plan,” Jones said, noting he would rather be at an NCAA tournament site preparing for a first-round game.
It didn’t happen, despite the presence of potential top NBA draft pick Ben Simmons, largely because of defensive inconsistencies and injuries that plagued his team throughout the season, Jones said.
Those things were crucial when LSU dropped four of its last seven games. Topped by the crushing loss to A&M, the four double-digit setbacks came by an average of 19.3 points.
That clearly put LSU behind the eight-ball for the SEC tournament, pretty much ensuring the Tigers had to win three games to take the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
After getting past Tennessee in the quarterfinals, the dream ended in a hail of missed field goals against Texas A&M when Jones’ team shot 20.6 percent and trailed by 32 points at halftime and 40 late in the game.
“I can tell you I was embarrassed at the outcome,” Jones said, “not only for me, for our players and our fan base, of how things took place in that game.
“Unfortunately, we fell short of the mark of getting back to the NCAA tournament. I certainly assume all responsibility for our shortcomings there.”
Before turning his attention to next season, which will almost certainly unfold without Simmons, Jones talked about not considering an NIT bid.
He said he didn’t think his team would be able to be representative of LSU without injured guard Keith Hornsby, who missed the final six games, and possibly freshman Antonio Blakeney.
Blakeney was under the weather for the two games in the SEC tournament and Jones said he nearly was hospitalized when the team returned to Baton Rouge late Saturday night.
But already without Hornsby and not knowing Sunday if he’d have Blakeney for a midweek NIT game, Jones said he talked to some of his players and then made a decision to immediately start focusing on next season.
“I wasn’t sure we would be a true representative of the LSU Tigers, putting ourselves in that position, and we chose to make sure that we put ourselves in position to now really concentrate on several things we can fulfill,” Jones said. “That’s getting better and preparing ourselves for next year.”
That includes an opportunity for the players to focus on finishing the semester strong in the classroom, he said.
By passing on the NIT, Jones was asked if he was concerned fans would think his team quit on the season.
“I know how much I love playing, how much I love coaching, how much we love teaching these guys. And you never want your season to end,” he noted. “I’ve got to always make sure I’m doing what’s in the best interest of our players as we always move forward.
“Sometimes, that’s not a popular decision … but you’ve got to always feel you’ve got to do the right thing by them.”
With that, Jones pointed out the positives of the season.
LSU finished in a tie for third place in the SEC regular-season race for the second year in a row and again earned a double-bye for the league tournament.
Also, with the win over Tennessee in the quarterfinals, the Tigers defeated 12 of the other 13 league teams — falling to South Carolina.
Jones talked about Simmons, the nation’s top recruit, saying he was “blessed” to have had the opportunity to coach him.
Simmons was named national Freshman of the Year by USA Today and The Sporting News and was the SEC’s top freshman as well after averaging 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals a game.
“We’re excited for the time we had with him,” Jones said. “There were a lot of distractions, but none of that had to do whether we won or lost games.”
LSU did, however, seem to struggle in trying to adjust to Simmons’ all-around play.
Coupled with injuries to Hornsby and guard Jalyn Patterson and forward Craig Victor missing the first eight games as a transfer took its toll.
In addition to Simmons, LSU could lose junior guard Tim Quarterman, whom Jones said will consider making the switch to pro ball, and two seniors — Hornsby and Josh Gray.
Jones said he’s looking forward to competing next season with his returning corps of players — Blakeney, if he doesn’t join Simmons, Victor and Patterson —- and five new recruits with a goal of improving on the defensive end.
The group of newcomers includes two junior-college transfers — 6-foot-10 forward Duop Reath and guard Branden Jenkins of Lee College — forward Wayde Sims and guards Skylar Mays and Kieran Hayward.
“The area we’ve got to continue to work on getting better is focus and concentration on the defensive end of the floor,” Jones said. “We’re not pleased with our defensive effort … we’re going to have to certainly change up some of our schemes.”