Anthony Hickey, LSU Tigers open Johnny Jones era versus UC Santa Barbara

Anthony Hickey may be the most excited man in the building Friday night when the LSU men’s basketball team opens the season against UC Santa Barbara at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Maybe even more excited than his coach.

As former LSU player and longtime Dale Brown assistant Johnny Jones makes his official debut on his alma mater’s sideline, Hickey bounces back from a one-game suspension that relegated the sophomore point guard to cheerleader duties in Monday night’s exhibition victory over Arkansas-Monticello.

“Somebody tells you that you can’t play, to me it’s like taking candy from a baby,” Hickey said. “That’s how much basketball means to me.”

Hickey and freshman forward Shane Hammink were both suspended by Jones for Monday’s exhibition, a game LSU won 82-66 after waiting 34 minutes to take a double-digit lead.

The Tigers return to a full roster when UC Santa Barbara brings to town one of the youngest teams in the nation.

“There are obviously some guidelines we have the opportunity to follow with our players,” Jones said. “When that line is crossed there are usually some circumstances that you have to deal with.”

Hickey said the punishment hit home.

“Ever since then, I just had a different mindset about how I’m going to handle myself on the court and off the court,” he said.

The return of Hickey should bolster an LSU attack whose switch to an up-tempo style fits the speedy point guard’s talents in the open floor.

Last year, former coach Trent Johnson often found himself imploring Hickey to slow the game’s pace.

Jones rarely will.

But as the Tigers adjust to a new system with a roster that includes five newcomers, Jones said he expects his first LSU team to experience plenty of growing pains.

“We are faced with that especially with a lot of new players, a new coach and a new system that we are trying to implement,” Jones said. “It’s extremely difficult, but it’s one of those things that will take us some time. We will look forward to it and embrace the opportunity.”

A mild, early season schedule that includes upcoming games against McNeese, Northwestern State and Mississippi Valley should give LSU a chance to find its footing.

UC Santa Barbara is only two years removed from back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, but opens play Friday with nine freshmen, three sophomores, four juniors and one senior.

Statistically, only Navy and Dartmouth have younger rosters.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for our basketball team to find out exactly where we are,” Jones said.

The night will be a memorable one for Jones no matter the outcome.

Jones helped Brown reach his first Final Four in 1981 as a reserve guard and was an assistant on Brown’s coaching staff when the Tigers returned to the Final Four in 1986. He accepted his dream job at LSU in April after serving as the head coach at North Texas the previous 12 seasons.

Jones remembers the emotions he felt when he led the Mean Green to a blowout win at the PMAC two years ago. He expects much of the same in Friday’s opener.

“The emotions I felt then, it should be that way coming out the tunnel,” he said.

Hickey has similar sentiments after watching from the bench Monday as his teammates got their first action under the lights.

“I look at it like I’m a step behind,” he said. “I’ve got to make it up.”