Johnny Jones, coming off a better-than-expected 19-12 record (9-9 in SEC play) in his debut season as head coach, leads the hardwood Tigers back onto the floor Tuesday afternoon for the team's first practice leading up to the 2013-14 campaign.
A recent change in NCAA rules allows men's basketball teams to take to the practice court a few weeks earlier than usual, although the sessions between now and season's tipoff may be more sporadic. The Tigers can practice a total of 30 times in the upcoming 42 days.
"We're really excited about the start of practice and feel like our guys have done a tremendous job during this offseason in preparation for a very tough schedule," Jones told reporters Monday. "I think that our guys that are returning from last year's team have a great deal of experience.
"We're also excited about the recruiting class in the freshmen that are coming in along with John Odo, who actually sat out last year. With the addition of those new guys, if we can get our chemistry right, I think there are some great things in store for this basketball team."
Much of the anticipation building around the program is due to the star-studded signing class set to take the floor. When asked what stands out the most with his freshmen, LSU's coach raved about their versatility and leaping ability.
"We have guys that have a great deal of range," explained Jones. "When you talk about Jordan Mickey, he's got a 7-foot, 3.5-inch wing span. He's an incredible athlete at about 6-foot-8, 6-foot-8.5. Jarell Martin, the same way. Then Tim Quarterman, he's a guy at about 6-foot-6, but he's still growing. He's got a great deal of range in terms of his length and he's a quick leaper as well … We'll be a lot more around the rim this year, and I think it will be fun to watch."
But Jones did caution that these freshmen aren't immune to the things that usually trip up first-year players from time to time.
"I'm glad that people are excited, but I think they will go through the same process as a lot of the other guys did," Jones continued. "It's going to take them some time to adjust to this level of play in Division-I basketball night in and night out because the game is going to be bigger, stronger, faster at this level. There will be an adjustment process."
On the subject of his freshmen, Jones also gave an update on the status of signee Brian Bridgewater, the local Scotlandville High School product who hasn't been able to get final clearance from the NCAA yet.
"Brian is enrolled in school, and he's still in the middle of an appeals process," said Jones. "We're still waiting for that, and he won't be able to take the floor with us in terms of practicing until they have an actual ruling on his appeal."
Jones conceded this is a matter that "absolutely" could extend past the fall semester. "We just want to make sure that we do our due diligence and help him through the appeals process, whichever way they decide to rule. And if it's too late then we'll have to make a decision on what's best for Brian, whether he should play or redshirt or whatever. We want to make sure that they have a proper ruling before we make a final decision."
What that does mean in the short term – and in all likelihood for the beginning of the season – is that LSU will be down to 11 scholarship players who are eligible to play, considering transfer Keith Hornsby must sit out the year.
"Looking at our team and 13 scholarship guys, there are only 11 of those guys that will be able to really play right now, unless Bridgewater's situation changes. I like our number," Jones said confidently. "I think 10 or 11 guys could have an opportunity to possibly get into the rotation, depending on how we're able to play, which would be excellent for us. Now when you talk about extended minutes it could be totally different, but I think with the way this team is put together and how capable these guys are, any given night any one of them can give you some really positive minutes."
Jones then gave a number of individual breakdowns on his players. Here were the best synopses from the LSU sideline boss:
On F Johnny O'Bryant …
"He's going to require a lot of attention from opposing teams because of the offseason he's had. He's worked extremely hard, and his weight and conditioning is probably the best it's been in his career. Johnny had an excellent LeBron James Camp. With that being said, with all the attention Johnny will require from other teams, it will benefit the other guys on our team. Also, those other guys on our team will allow Johnny a little more freedom than he had last year because of those guys' abilities to execute and pass the ball from outside."
On G Andre Stringer …
"Tremendous leadership. I think Andre grew up a lot last year, and it's really shown through the summer and the beginning of school this year. It's his senior year. He wants to make sure he has an opportunity to go out the right way, the right way being winning and maximizing all the potential you have on your team. He's done it through example, with the way he's worked, and he's been a little bit more vocal than he's been in the past as well."
On G Anthony Hickey and his maturation process …
"We hope that he will continue to grow as a person and as a basketball player, on and off the floor. We're hoping that from last year's experience it's a constant reminder for him how important it is to be mindful on and off the floor to be helpful to his team."
On swingman Shavon Coleman and his role this season …
"Coleman will probably start more at the three than at the four for us. I think we've got seven or maybe six guys that are capable of playing the four spot, so that will make him more perimeter-oriented this year. That will be beneficial to him and help us because it gives us more experience out there. He's really a good on-ball defender. He's got great length and plays extremely hard."
On F/C Darcy Malone, who Jones called ‘a face-up 7-footer' …
"I'm really impressed with Darcy Malone. Darcy runs the floor extremely well. He's a really good outside shooter, a good passer as well. He's long, active can really run for a 7-footer. He's going to be a delight for you to watch … It would be extremely tough (for Jones to redshirt him). I think he's a little bit more advanced than a lot of the guys you'd like (to redshirt). He's got great size, his strength is good, and he's had a great preseason for us. It would be extremely tough to redshirt a guy like that. I see him getting a lot of quality minutes for us."
On C John Odo …
"Odo's had a great offseason. He's bigger, stronger and really put on weight. He changed his eating habits because he needed to put on some weight. He's done a tremendous job in the weight room as well so he's going to definitely have an impact on this team."
When put all together, Jones likes what the sum of his parts can be. However, he made it clear that's what the next 42 days are really going to be about: coming together.
"I want to make sure that our intensity level is at the right spot," Jones explained of the importance of the upcoming stretch. "I want to make sure that we're trying to get our chemistry right, which is going to be real important – to understand that these guys are playing with each other and for each other."
Finally, Jones did give a glimpse into the Tigers' recruiting plans, fluid as they may be, with the Class of 2014.
"Well we'll definitely have two that we know (are leaving) that are seniors, and we definitely are aware that Johnny could've put his name in the draft last year," said Jones. "There's a possibility we have other guys on our team, depending on how they play this year, who will have an opportunity to do that as well. We have to be conscious and cognizant of that and recruit that way. In the early signing period we're hoping we'll address the needs immediately, whether Johnny stays or goes."
Exactly what all that means? "We're shooting to sign hopefully two, maybe three (in the early signing period)."
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