Six minutes remained in the first half of the McDonald’s All-American game a week ago when LSU fans got a snippet of the program’s future.
Curling into the lane off a screen from the right wing, Baton Rouge native Jarrell Martin corralled a lob on an inbounds play. Hanging aloft, the Madison Prep standout and five-star recruit flushed home a dunk as North Carloina-bound center Kennedy Meeks cleared out of the flight path.
On Tuesday, the Tigers program received a boost by sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant III, a McDonald’s All-American alum, declaring his intention to don purple and gold again next season. An undercurrent of the choice was clear, too. With an All-Southeastern Conference pick in the fold, four starters back and elite recruits due in June, the program could push to the cusp of its first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.
Granted, Martin’s outing didn’t exactly figure into O’Bryant’s algorithm about whether to stay or leave Red Stick.
Neither did the presence of four-star forward Jordan Mickey, or the Georgia Class 3A player of the Year in 6-foot-4 point guard and four-star recruit Tim Quarterman.
“Not really,” O’Bryant said. “Jarell’s a great player. Jordan’s a great player. Tim’s a great player. They’re all great players, but the decision came down to what I had to do for myself and my family.”
O’Bryant’s cognisant, though, of what the proper blend of youth and experience can offer LSU.
Tuning into Monday’s national championship game is ample evidence.
Three of Michigan’s top four scorers were underclassmen, led by sophomore Trey Burke’s 24 points and 17 more from freshman Spike Albrecht.
Only junior Tim Hardaway Jr., who averaged 14.5 points and 4.7 rebounds this season, was a veteran seeing heavy minutes.
No one is suggesting LSU can produce a carbon copy of the Wolverines. However, a feasible knockoff exists with four starters back to pair with five-player recruiting class ranked as high as No. 6 nationally.
“Watching that game (Monday) gave me chills,” O’Bryant said. “I’m very excited about next year. We’ve got a great recruiting class, and my job is to help lead those guys through workouts and show them anything is possible through hard work.”
Translated simply: LSU kept four of its top-five scorers and an All-SEC defensive team member in guard Anthony Hickey while adding top-flight recruits to the mix, which offers Jones the depth and longer bodies next year to adhered to a stated desire for an up-tempo style.
“You do a great job going out and recruiting and trying to bring new players in,” Jones said. “but when you can keep a guy like Johnny O’Bryant, who can make the type of impact on the program. It’s great.”
LSU averaged 68.7 possessions per game this season, ranking third in the SEC, but did so with four players seeing at least 29 minutes per game. Often, Jones has made it clear 28 minutes is his ideal threshold, but was forced to compromise. Not next season, when he’ll have four starters, reserves in Corban Collins and Malik Morgan, and an incoming freshman class could push the rotation as high as nine bodies.
And the option to press and extend its defense for longer periods than situational usage in 2012.
The terrain of the SEC is also far less steep to ascend next year than this season, one where LSU went 19-12 and exceeded expectations with a 9-9 conference mark to finish ninth.
“It’s better just to have those expectations,” O’Bryant said. “The past two years, nobody expected us to do anything. We kind of over-achieved, but next year we’re going to be pressure free. We’re just going to go play.”
First, Florida loses its top three scorers in Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton, but they bring back staples in forward Patric Young, point guard Scottie Wilbekin guard Michael Frazier III.
Throw in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class, and the Gators should be fine.
Alabama returns its top six scorers and the backcourt of Trevor Releford, Trevor Lacey and Rodney Cooper to go along with top 100 recruits in center Jimmie Taylor and power forward Shannon Hale in Tuscaloosa.
Kentucky had leading scorer Archie Goodwin opt for the NBA draft, but will add a six-player group ranked No. 1 nationally with the top prospects at point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center set to arrive.
Finally, Tennessee is set to return four starters, including forward Jarnell Stokes and leading scorer Jordan McCrae alongside steady point guard Trae Golden. The Volunteers also get back forward Jeronne Maymon, who sat out the second half of the season with an injury.
After that quartet, though, there’s plenty of rosters in flux at Ole Miss, Missouri and Arkansas to allow for LSU to make a move in the standings and toward the bubble.
“I’m very eager,” LSU guard Andre Stringer said. “This is very important to me that we go as far as we can and get to the dance. I’ve never been before, and I know he wants to go as well.”
That’s one aspect where Stringer and O’Bryant’s interest was mutual.
“I just want take those guys dancing one time,” O’Bryant said.
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