Johnny Jones peered out from under the glare of the television lights at the packed media gathering in front of him.
“Well, great seeing all of you here,” he said. Then he added, “A little disappointed we’re here. It was obviously not our plan.”
It was painful, but it was honest. Everyone thought on this particular Tuesday in March, Jones would either be holding court at one last hometown news conference before boarding a plane to LSU’s NCAA tournament destination or already in the air.
Instead, the Tigers were grounded. Busted flat in Baton Rouge, with Jones answering a train full of questions about how LSU wound up going nowhere despite a roster featuring the nation’s top freshman and presumptive No. 1 NBA draft pick.
“We were certainly filled with a lot of excitement, a lot of hopes, aspirations, and a lot of expectations,” Jones said. “Unfortunately we fell short of the mark of getting back to the NCAA tournament, and I certainly assume all responsibility for our shortcomings there.”
That’s good, because Jones is being held responsible by most everyone who gives a fig about LSU or college basketball for not taking better advantage of the ride he hitched on the Ben Simmons comet.
Jones and LSU basketball didn’t reach the stars but flamed out, finishing with a 19-14 record that had the Tigers lined up for the consolation prize of an NIT bid before LSU pulled a Lyndon Johnson and shockingly announced it would not accept the nomination.
It was a fascinating 45 minutes with Jones. He was candid about some things, like all but officially announcing that Tim Quarterman would be joining Simmons’ certain departure for the NBA and that freshman guard Antonio Blakeney would have a decision to make.
But Jones gave no satisfactory insight into his decision to turn down an all but certain NIT bid despite numerous attempts to get him to do so, or whether Simmons or Quarterman were still going to class.
“I know how much I love playing, how much I love coaching, how much we love teaching with these guys. And you never really want your season to end,” he said. “With these guys, I’ve got to always make sure that I’m doing what’s in the best interest of our players at the end of the day for them as we always move forward. Sometimes that’s not a popular decision, but you’ve got to always feel that you’ve got to do the right thing by them.
“I think you have to try to be at your best, and certainly I didn’t want to put our team again in a situation that I thought that would not be favorable for them and our fans.”
Jones cited the loss of Keith Hornsby to a season-ending injury and indicated LSU might have been without Blakeney as well, as he was ill during the SEC tournament.
LSU’s play in the SEC semifinals was enough to make anyone ill. The Tigers were dismissed 71-38 by Texas A&M in a thoroughly humiliating performance that Jones wrote off to bad shooting, not bad attitudes, though in a telling moment he admitted he enlisted speakers (read sports psychologists) to improve team chemistry.
“We get to the arena, in the locker room, champing at the bit, and they get out there and we get off to a tremendous start, and they’re playing their butts off,” Jones said. “Unfortunately we stopped making shots.”
It was another unsatisfying answer, but if there’s one thing you can say about Jones is he’s unwilling to throw his players under the proverbial bus. Even to the point of saying as he did at halftime down 35-13 to the Aggies that his team was playing with good energy, a remark bound to haunt Jones.
It may make Jones seem out of touch, but if being positive is a fault, it’s a good one to have. Jones positively pointed out how his team has finished in the top four the past two seasons in a power conference like the SEC (though with three NCAA bids, it’s hard to say the SEC was very powerful this season) and how attendance has swelled both at home and when LSU plays on the road.
Star power will do that, and LSU had that with Simmons. Now that he is all but certainly going, taking Hornsby and probably at least Quarterman with him, the question becomes whether Jones has the goods to keep the Tigers relevant in an SEC bent on improving its stock as a basketball conference (see the hiring of former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a special basketball consigliere to SEC commish Greg Sankey).
There have been no major scandals on Johnny’s watch, no huge off-court embarrassments, and for that, the loyalist Jones is to be commended.
But ultimately he will be judged on whether he can have LSU cutting down nets and seeing its name called on Selection Sunday. That referendum may be coming next season.
Again, Jones was upbeat.
“We’ve always been able to field a very talented team, and this year won’t be any different,” he said.
One thing must be different: Jones’ news conference a year from now better be a prelude to an NCAA tournament trip, not explaining why his team isn’t going again.