Rabalais: LSU is on solid ground with Caldwell, but she must recruit

Three years into the Nikki Caldwell era as head coach of the LSU Lady Tigers, here’s what the program has accomplished:

Three 20-win seasons

Three NCAA tournaments

Two trips to the Sweet 16

One Southeastern Conference tournament final.

Those are numbers, stark statistics. The bigger question is where the program is going.

Despite some annual drama, the program is on solid footing. Caldwell and her staff are knowledgeable and have done a good job developing players.

In Year 1, they got LaSondra Barrett to maximize her previously unrealized potential, earning All-SEC honors. In Year 2, they helped Theresa Plaisance to go from a two-year bench body to the SEC’s leading scorer and on the way to being a two-time All-SEC selection. And this season, they helped Shanece McKinney grow into an imposing, if not always consistent, defensive force.

After Sunday’s 73-47 NCAA tournament loss at Louisville, McKinney was glowing in describing how much Caldwell’s staff worked with her to improve her game over the last three years.

She’s hoping to head off and play overseas now. Plaisance is likely bound for the WNBA. And fellow senior Jeanne Kenney, forced to miss Sunday’s game after a second-round concussion against West Virginia, is preparing to embark on a coaching career.

In them the Lady Tigers will lose 33.8 points and 16.3 rebounds per game and 36 percent of their assists from the just-completed 21-13 season.

But those are numbers, stark statistics. Without their three seniors, LSU will also lose a significant amount of leadership that will have to come from somewhere if the Lady Tigers are to mount a similar season in 2014-15. Or improve.

Short-term, fans have reason to be excited in the postseason play of guard Danielle Ballard heading into her junior season.

After a wildly uneven regular season, Ballard was terrific in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, posting double-figure point totals each game and a double-double in each of LSU’s three NCAA tourney games.

Guard Raigyne Moncrief, a sophomore-to-be, will require knee surgery to repair the torn left ACL she suffered in LSU’s first-round NCAA tournament win over Georgia Tech, though Caldwell is optimistic she will be ready for the start of next season. With Ballard, they will form a dynamic offensive backcourt.

All that remains is to find a third guard. It could be Rina Hill at point guard or Jasmine Rhodes or DaShawn Harden, all pressed to play bigger roles in the NCAAs after Moncrief and Kenney were injured. Then there is junior-to-be Anne Pedersen and Akilah Bethel, a transfer from West Virginia who practiced with the Lady Tigers while sitting out.

LSU will definitely be smaller in 2014-15 without the 6-foot-5 Plaisance and 6-4 McKinney. Caldwell expects 6-3 Ann Jones, a transfer from Memphis who also has two years eligibility left, to start.

The other post position is a bigger question. Sheila Boykin has been a role player for most of her three seasons at LSU and would need to make a Plaisance- or McKinney-like improvement to fill the void.

The wild card is 6-4 center Derreyal Youngblood from John Curtis.

The player they call “Tank” was marginalized by numerous suspensions meted out by Caldwell, seeing action in only 21 of LSU’s 34 games. The opportunity is there for her to be at least a defensive presence down low in her final two seasons as a Lady Tiger. But there is also a fair possibility Caldwell will think Youngblood isn’t worth the trouble and send her packing.

LSU will also bring in a couple of recruits, but none who will make a splash of the Seimone Augustus/Temeka Johnson/Sylvia Fowles wavelength. And it is in this area that Caldwell faces her biggest challenge.

Aside from Plaisance, and Ballard when she was playing well, who from this team would have started for one of LSU’s Final Four teams from 2004-08? And it is those teams, those banners hanging in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, by which the program will always be judged.

LSU has done well to reach the Sweet 16 the last two seasons, mitigating the disappointment of regular seasons that didn’t live up to expectations. But the Lady Tigers also advanced that far in part because they got to play NCAA first- and second-round tournament games at home after successfully bidding to be a predetermined host site.

Starting next year, though, the top four seeds in each regional will host first- and second-round games. That means LSU can again play at home, but the Lady Tigers will have to earn it.

Under Caldwell, LSU is off to a good start. But to be better, to get back to being a Final Four contender as Caldwell herself has said the program needs to be, they’re going to have to earn it through better recruiting.