The LSU basketball team returned from its Italy tour in May having put together six straight wins and seemingly flying high.
On the heels of back-to-back 20-loss seasons, the Tigers entered the summer with nine returning letterwinners to go with Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton, the team’s leading scorer in Italy after sitting out 2010-11 to satisfy NCAA residency rules. McDonald’s All-American Johnny O’Bryant, Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey and former Pickering star John Isaac were on the way.
Most of the things that pointed to better days this season remain intact, and it’s nice to sit back and imagine what kind of tandem O’Bryant and Hamilton will make as they join veterans Malcolm White and Storm Warren on the inside.
But a string of developments the past few weeks has dealt a blow to the program’s positive mojo.
On the recruiting trail, LSU missed out on Louisiana’s top two Class of 2012 prospects, losing Riverside Academy forward Ricardo Gathers to St. John’s and St. Augustine point guard Javan Felix to Texas.
Both recruits could have provided a huge boost to coach Trent Johnson’s rebuilding efforts. They instead followed Markel Brown, Brian Williams and Langston Galloway as recent BCS-level recruits to head out of state.
A pair of in-house defections, the second and third of the offseason, also put a damper on LSU’s summer.
First there was 6-foot-11 center Garrett Green, who left with one year of eligibility remaining. That wasn’t too hard to stomach. Green would have had a reduced role on the team this year with O’Bryant and Hamilton joining the fray, and his status as a graduate student gave him the right to enroll elsewhere (he picked San Diego State, ultimately) without having to sit out a year.
The curveball came Monday when 6-7 wing Matt Derenbecker announced he was withdrawing from LSU to address “some personal matters.” He is expected to resume his career elsewhere, possibly at Tulane.
Derenbecker may have never blossomed into a college star, but the sharpshooter from Metairie was in line to become a four-year starter for the Tigers. He averaged 8.3 points in Southeastern Conference play as a freshman and probably would have gotten more open looks this year with a beefed-up inside game to help absorb the defense’s attention.
John Derenbecker said his son’s social life at LSU had become a distraction for the sophomore and the family saw it affecting his academic and personal development.
Whatever the case, the Tigers must move on.
The best-case scenario is that Isaac develops enough to slide into Derenbecker’s role. Or if Hickey can handle the point guard spot, maybe 5-8 sophomore Andre Stringer can move outside.
With three months to prepare for Johnson’s pivotal fourth season, the Tigers still have reason to feel good about where they stand. But they’ll probably be glad to leave their summer behind.