Johnson hoping experience helps

Back in May, the LSU men’s basketball team spent 11 days touring Italy, where the Tigers saw the sights, broadened their horizons and worked on building team chemistry.

Most important, they won.

LSU went 6-0 on the trip, routing their Italian competition in all six games.

Coach Trent Johnson, whose Tigers begin preseason practice Friday evening, hopes the experience overseas helped build confidence in a team that has lost 41 games the past two years.

“I think this is a team that is, quite frankly, fed up with losing, so the trip was very productive in that sense,” Johnson, entering his fourth year, said Thursday at LSU basketball’s media day.

The Tigers have other reasons for optimism, too, as they enter the 2011-12 season.

The return of Storm Warren and Malcolm White at forward and Chris Bass at point guard gives LSU three seniors, the most Johnson has had at LSU since coaching five his first year. Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton, after sitting out last season to satisfy NCAA residency rules, joins touted freshmen Johnny O’Bryant and Anthony Hickey as top newcomers.

Ralston Turner is back after earning Freshman All-Southeastern Conference recognition in his rookie year.

“Everybody’s confident we can turn it around this year,” junior forward Eddie Ludwig said. “All the pieces are in place to put everything together and make a run at the NCAA tournament.”

LSU hasn’t sniffed at the NCAA tournament since losing to North Carolina in 2009’s second round. Both LSU teams since then have finished last in the Southeastern Conference.

The Tigers took a hit late in the summer when Matt Derenbecker, who started 16 of LSU’s final 17 games, transferred to Dayton. But they still have their most talent, experience and depth since that 2009 season.

“Are we further ahead than since I have been at LSU?” Johnson said. “I would say yes, and that is what you would expect with a nucleus of two-year and three-year guys returning.”

Johnson will have plenty of options down low, where Hamilton and O’Bryant will battle Warren and White, a pair of returning starters, for playing time.

The big change on the perimeter has Andre Stringer, last year’s point guard, moving outside to occupy a spot on the wing opposite Turner. Hickey and Bass will play the point.

Hickey earned Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award last year after leading Christian County to its first state title. O’Bryant, the most ballyhooed LSU signee of the Johnson era, was a McDonald’s All-American at East Side High in Cleveland, Miss.

Pickering High graduate John Isaac, who bounced back from knee surgery in 2009 to earn all-state recognition last year, has a chance to see immediate playing time as well.

“All three guys give us a level of athleticism, a level of quickness and a level of size that we haven’t had since my first year as head coach,” Johnson said.

More help could come in a couple of months.

Ronald Martin, a freshman safety on the LSU football team, is expected to join the Tigers as a walk-on basketball player. Martin earned all-state honors last year after leading White Castle to the Class 1A state title.

“Obviously, his priority right now is what is going on at football, but as soon as he is through and coach (Les) Miles releases him, he will be over here helping us,” Johnson said. “As soon as we are done with our bowl game in New Orleans, he will be here.”

Free admission to opener

LSU’s opener Nov. 12 against Nicholls State in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center will be free to the public, the school announced Thursday.

With the football team playing Western Kentucky in its homecoming game the same day, the game against Nicholls is part of the second-ever basketball-football doubleheader on the LSU campus.

All season ticket holders will receive a free ticket to the game for their usual reserved seat. Other seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis on game day.

The game time is tentatively set for noon.

Johnson to go barefoot

Johnson is joining the growing number of coaches participating in the Samaritan’s Feet program and will coach the annual Sixth Man Club practice/scrimmage on Oct. 25 barefoot.

The Samaritan’s Feet program, supported by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the NCAA and others, attempts to raise awareness of the vast number of children around the world who are forced to go barefoot because they don’t own a pair of shoes.

Samaritan’s Feet has served 62 countries around the world and has placed new shoes on the feet of more than two million children.