In 2015, LSU basketball was in unfamiliar territory. The Tigers had a superstar in Ben Simmons, with massive expectations following them throughout the season.
The team finished just 19-14 (11-7 SEC) and after a loss to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament semifinals, they didn’t participate in a postseason tournament. Coming into the 2016-2017 season, the program is in a much different place.
Ben Simmons was — of course — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. But, the Tigers also lost key contributors Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. Most people don’t expect much from this squad — they were picked to finished 12th in the SEC this season — but they’re still capable of sneaking into a postseason tournament.
Despite losing Simmons to the NBA, LSU should be fine on offense.
Antonio Blakeney decided to come back for his sophomore season, much to the delight of head coach Johnny Jones. In the media’s preseason poll, the guard was selected second team All-SEC. Last season, Blakeney showed that he is capable of being a center-piece of an offense. On the season, he averaged 12.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 42.5 percent from the field. Blakeney, a member of the conference’s All-Freshman team in 2015, had eight games of 20-or-more points.
However, those numbers include an early-season slump. Over the last 11 games of the season, though, Blakeney increased his productivity. Over that stretch, he averaged 18.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Through that 11-game period, he also shot 46.5 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from the three-point line.
Outside of Blakeney, the LSU offense as a whole will be reliable as well.
The Tigers scored 79 points per game last season, shooting 46 percent from the field. Those rates were good enough for the second-highest points per game and the third-highest field goal percentage in the SEC.
LSU was also ranked No. 3 in the conference in assists per game, showing that the team has the ability to effectively move the ball around on the offensive end.
Lastly, the Tigers led the SEC with eight steals per game. Although the defense wasn’t always as good as it could have been, the team does have a knack for taking the ball away.
If they can repeat their success in stealing the ball, that will only give the offense even more opportunities to score.
Speaking of defense, that is where the concern with this team lies.
The Tigers gave up an average of over 77 points per game — ranked No. 288 in the country (68th worst). They also allowed their opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the field — ranked No. 272 in the country (74th worst).
That’s simply unacceptable.
The most critical component of the defense that LSU must improve for the upcoming season is rim protection. A lack of defensive presence in and around the paint can largely be credited for the overall defensive struggles of the team last season. If they want to improve, they must find a way to protect the rim.
The Tigers hope that junior-college transfer Duop Reath can provide that to this year’s squad. The six-foot-10, 235 pound forward is originally from South Sudan and played the last two seasons for Lee College in Baytown, Texas. Last season, he averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
LSU was ranked just ninth in the SEC in rebounds last season — with 37.3 per game — and the team lost a massive amount of those when Simmons (11.8 rebounds per game) left for the NBA. The Tigers will need Reath and the other big men to step up in a big way just to match last season’s rebounding numbers, which were already below average.
LSU also ranked as the fifth-worst team in the conference in turnovers committed. Although the team has an offense capable of scoring nearly 80 points in a game, if they cannot rebound effectively and limit turnovers, the season could quickly get away from the Tigers.
Players to watch
G Antonio Blakeney, Soph. — Blakeney showed last season that he is a dangerous man on offense, and defenses around the conference will no doubt try to stop him. From February until the end of the season, he became the clear-cut second option behind Ben Simmons — the guard had two 30-point games in the month of February. Now that Simmons is gone, Blakeney will be the go-to guy. Expect him to have a big final year in Baton Rouge and average over 20 points per game.
F Craig Victor II, Jr. — One of the key returnees for LSU, the Tigers will look to Victor to shoulder a significant portion of the load as they move on in life after Simmons. If he can put it all together, the forward is capable of having a solid year.
F Duop Reath, Jr. — The problems that the Tigers had on defense and at rim protecting during last season are well-documented. Reath will play a big role in attempting to fix those problems. He is a big body and has shown the ability to consistently defend the paint and rebound well. If he can adjust quickly to the higher level of competition, he’ll be a key component of this team’s success.
Matchups to watch
Texas A&M — Coming into the season, the Aggies are unquestionably the best team in the SEC West. If LSU wants to have a successful season — and possibly make a postseason tournament — they will likely need to defeat A&M at least once. The Tigers play at Texas A&M on Jan. 11 and host the Aggies on Feb. 4.
Alabama — A team that was in the mix for a NCAA tournament bid until a late-season slide, Alabama will present tough competition for LSU. If the Tigers can win both against the Crimson Tide, they’ll set themselves up well for a potential SEC tournament first round bye. Alabama plays at LSU on Jan. 14 and the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa on Feb. 18.
Feb. 14 @ Ole Miss — Last season, the Rebels finished sixth in the SEC with a 20-12 record (10-8 SEC). If they replicate that success this season, just three games behind Kentucky in 2015, LSU’s meeting with Ole Miss becomes very important. The winner will not only improve their SEC record, but set itself up well with momentum late in the season. LSU has won three straight against Ole Miss.
Although the Tigers have a reliable offense, the defensive concerns that the team faces will be too much for them to be great. They’ll have a solid season, finish sixth in the SEC and make an NIT tournament appearance.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Andrew Bruckse, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Adam is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Tennessee Journalist and a Junior at UT. Most of his free time is spent watching sports, listening to good music, and enjoying life. If you wish to contact him, you can email him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter, @AdamMilliken14, or find him at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/adam-milliken/109/a89/a32.