While it’s the middle of a long, hot summer, when LSU fans are obviously dreaming about football season, men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones finds himself roughly halfway between the end of last season and the start of a new one in mid-November. Now that he’s had time to digest an up-and-down year that culminated with a trip to the National Invitation Tournament, Jones talked about the Tigers’ 20-win season and the opportunity to improve on that with a talented group of youngsters going into his third season at his alma mater.

Last season obviously didn’t end the way you wanted it to, but when you look back on the whole thing, was it another important step in the process?

I’m very familiar with the Southeastern Conference, obviously, and when I took over this team two years ago I saw where we were and knew there were some things we needed to try to correct — from talent to academics, the whole scope, and I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.

In two years, we won 19 and 20 games and didn’t have a losing record in the conference. I remember back when you won 19, 20 games and went .500 or better in the SEC, you would automatically be in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case the last two years.

That tells me we’ve got to do more and with the way we’re recruiting and the players we have in our program, the way that we’ve competed, we know if we continue at that pace we’ll control our own destiny and be where we want to be ... in the NCAA tournament.

Do you feel the NCAA tournament is within reach after laying the foundation the past two seasons?

We can control that part of it. We would have loved to have won a couple more games and maybe had an opportunity to control our own fate this year, but it didn’t happen. We were fortunate enough to get in the NIT and go on the road and win on somebody else’s floor (at San Francisco), and then played a top-25 team at SMU, a team that probably should have been in the NCAA tournament, and got to the NIT championship.

We knocked off Kentucky in the regular season, the No. 1 rated team in the country in the preseason and had the No. 1 recruiting class and played in the championship game of the NCAA tournament. We almost beat them up there. That tells me we’re extremely close to where we’re trying to get to.

You also had some games that were head-scratchers, like the overtime loss at Ole Miss and other tough ones at Alabama and Arkansas. Do you think back on how those games got away?

You had games that we really competed extremely well in and we also had a couple of setbacks in games we should have just won. Some nights, you’re going to have bad games, and we just weren’t good enough to overcome that play. But I’m excited about where we are, and I’m even more excited about where I feel we’re headed.

Was inconsistency the thing that hurt most because you had talented veterans like Johnny O’Bryant III, Andre Stringer, Shavon Coleman and Anthony Hickey?

We certainly had the players in place, but we were also depending on freshmen to deliver night in and night out. They were capable, but we asked some guys to play out of position. Jarell Martin was hurt almost half the season and then we were trying to get him more acclimated to playing on the perimeter more so than inside and it took us some time to get where we were trying to go.

When we got there, we kind of hit our stride in a sense and we played extremely well down the stretch. I thought we were one of the better teams out there down the stretch, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to showcase that in the NCAA tournament.

You lose four talented players, but have a solid nucleus coming back with sophomores Jordan Mickey, Tim Quarterman and Martin and newcomers like Keith Hornsby, Josh Gray, Jalyn Patterson, Aaron Epps and Elbert Robinson III that will raise no doubt expectations for this year’s team.

We feel like with Jarell and Jordan, those core guys we recruited last year, we put ourselves in position to maybe have some early inconsistencies (last season). But if the chemistry is right with this team, some great things can happen for us.

We had some inconsistency last year, but I think maturity from Jarell and Jordan and even (junior) Keith Hornsby will help that.

Do you think the talent you’ve assembled may have played a part in attracting assistant coach Eric Musselman to your staff?

He actually had some NBA opportunities available to him. But any time you have the ability to add experience with players or coaches, and the chemistry can be right, you have to take advantage of it. Coach Musselman was intrigued by the college game and was working at Arizona State the last two years, so we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. He was excited about what we’re doing. He knew the caliber of players we have and he was familiar with our style of play, and I think he’s going to come in and add a great deal to our program.

Two years after coming on board, do you feel that the program is about where you wanted to be at this point?

I think we have certainly shown some improvement each year across the board. We knew it wouldn’t be a quick-fix; we were talking about building a program. We’re not in this to just have winning seasons; we’re trying to build a winning program. When you do that, it has the ability to last. We’ve been able to put the right pieces in place with the right players and coaches coming in along the way.

I understand where we are. I’m not one to say, “Wait until I get my players in.” I wanted to do it with the players that were already here and the ones I inherited because those guys came here for the right reasons.

We’ve shown a great deal of progress and won at a great rate. Knowing that, I get satisfaction out of the success that we’ve had. But at the same time, we know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.