Twelve months ago, LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones was scrounging around for enough bodies to fill out his roster.
Surely you remember.
The first-year coach turned tuba player Andrew Del Piero into a viable 7-foot body to chew up 14 minutes a night and not exist as a complete liability.
The former Golden Band from Tigerland member existed as a plucky metaphor — a team of seemingly duct-taped parts, from undersized ballhawk Anthony Hickey to a former McDonald’s All-American in forward Johnny O’Bryant III and fifth-year senior guard Charles Carmouche landing at a third and final stop in his career.
Somehow it worked.
Jones’ squad produced a .500 mark in the (putrid) SEC and put itself in discussions for a NIT berth and an offseason of optimism.
On Tuesday, walking into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, new court and all, would have elicited a giddy feeling among a skeptical hoops fan.
Aspirations tend to be upwardly mobile when a top-10 recruiting class, including three top-75 prospects, are infused into a roster bringing back its top four scorers (O’Bryant, Hickey, guard Andre Stringer and swingman Shavon Coleman).
Seven new faces dotted the floor, including UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby — improperly billed as purely a jump shooter after a 30-minute span attacking the rim at will — waiting in the fold for next season.
Jones’ message since his hiring and return to his alma mater has been he covets long, rangy athletes able to swap among three positions and stifle opponents with pressure. Well, now we get to see that style in person.
A season ago, LSU’s seven-man rotation made the grind of conference play a clichéd war of attrition. The Tigers pressed selectively and for no more than five minutes at a time. Fatigue and the potential for foul trouble demanded prudence.
Now, Jones can mix and match as he pleases. A May rule change, which allows 30 practices over 40 days ahead of a team’s season opener, is plenty of time for him to experiment with myriad combos to roll out for beta testing in the nonconference portion of the docket.
When O’Bryant announced in April he was taking a pass on leaving Baton Rouge early for the NBA draft, the trajectory for the program increased its angle of ascent, pointed toward a potential NCAA tournament bid.
The notion isn’t delusional.
No, the SEC won’t be as laughable last season. Not stellar, either, but Alabama, Missouri, Ole Miss and Arkansas — all of whom finished ahead of the Tigers — face serious questions. A top-five finish is reasonable.
Unlike in his debut year, Jones possesses a full complement of assets to see whether the program can capitalize.