Harris: Next step for Jones’ Tigers is NCAA tournament

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONLSU basketball coach Johnny Jones talks with Anthony Hickey, Jordan Mickey and Johnny O'Bryant III during the Tennessee game this season.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNONLSU basketball coach Johnny Jones talks with Anthony Hickey, Jordan Mickey and Johnny O'Bryant III during the Tennessee game this season.

The conversations, the dropping of hints, the subtleties of lobbying, all of those come later.

Not in a cramped locker room in the bowels of Moody Coliseum while you change, pluck a backpack off a brass hook and wander out to see friends and family on the floor.

Not after a mixed bag of a season ended with top-seeded SMU erasing a five-point halftime lead in 90 seconds.

Not when the Mustangs spent the final five minutes of an 80-67 victory throwing up lobs then moving on to the death grip of the four corners offense in an 80-67 loss during the second round of the NIT.

“It’s a learning point,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “It’s just a season with us rebuilding and getting better.”

Rebuilding? Certainly.

Getting better? That point might elicit more arguments.

But there’s no doubt about what the expectation will be around Baton Rouge in 12 months: NCAA tournament or bust.

Yes, getting swept in what this year’s edition could be was an easy sales pitch: Four veterans, including an All-Southeastern Conference pick in Johnny O’Bryant III plus recruiting roundly appraised as being worthy of the fickle and mystical top-10 nationally.

The logic: There’s enough talent and a feeble SEC to reap a windfall.

If the Tigers were a team worthy for inclusion in the field of 68, perhaps it was as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed — a precocious team nibbling on its cuticles during Selection Sunday.

This group had its flaws. There were hints and questions from the early days of practice in October, but an optimist — even a pragmatist — shoves those nagging sensations aside to let things play out on the floor.

Still, LSU was small at guard. Hickey and Andre Stringer, who finished his career second all-time in 3-pointers with 242, didn’t have a Charles Carmouche to compliment them — a long, tenacious and experienced backcourt mate.

Before he went down with a knee injury, Malik Morgan was a defensive asset if LSU pressed, and he was its best rebounding guard. Freshman Tim Quarterman, the gangly 6-foot-6 heir apparent at point guard, finished 25.0 turnover percentage, the worst on the roster, according to KenPom.com.

What about the Tigers’ tantalizing length?

Forward Jordan Mickey swatted 106 shots and is already seventh all-time at LSU. But if foes attacked him directly — see SMU’s Cannen Cunningham chugging down the lane and throwing down on the freshman — Mickey could be average.

Jarell Martin? Expectation and perception, plus spraining his ankle 33 seconds into the season, made the nonconference portion of the docket an exercise in sorting out confidence issues and a wobbly transition to small forward. He averaged 11.4 points the rest of the way, shooting a respectable 48.4 percent.

Consider this, though. Until the past five games, the former McDonald’s All-American averaged just 0.6 assists per game. Next up is refining his unique skill set and learning how to facilitate others based on attention he draws. Still, he and Mickey, both SEC All-Freshman, are assets any coach in the nation would covet in his portfolio.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defensive issues are well known. They switched to a zone ahead of a win over Kentucky on Jan. 25 to slow a team with ample size to match theirs and stuck with it. Still, the Tigers allowed over 71.4 points per game and struggled all season being consistent in rotating in closing out, allowing an SEC-worst 39.4 3-point field goal percentage.

Yet they also won 20 games. They made the NIT, an improvement over sitting at home a year ago. The roster, in tatters when Johnny Jones arrived, is amply stocked moving forward.

“It was big for us just to make it to postseason play with the group of guys we have,” Mickey said.

Hulking center Elbert Robinson, a Dallas native standing 7 feet and tipping the scales at 290 pounds, is a top-50 recruit and took in the game Monday. He makes up class rated No. 23 by Rivals.com. Oh, and LSU already locked up the commitment of Aussie swingman Ben Simmons, the No. 5 overall player in the Class of 2015.

“The program is in tremendous shape,” Jones said. “You look at the group of freshmen we were able to go out there on the floor and the recruiting class coming in.”

The larger question moving forward is whether this season was simply another awkward step in transitioning from Trent Johnson’s tenure to Jones’. There will be no more power-sharing between Mickey and O’Bryant inside if the junior turns pro ­— a move widely expected.

“They’re going to have a great team next year,” O’Bryant said.

But, hold on, what if Mickey or Martin, who says he is sticking around, decamp? What does this season do to sway them?

“It’s a big role,” Mickey said. “I love playing with the guys we have on the team.”

Soon enough, all of these topics and questions get broached. Brains get picked and decisions swayed. What it may yield is, fittingly, just like this team: Good, bad, and the balance unknown.

“We try to throw out little nuggets so everybody will be on the same page,” Hickey said. “But everybody believes in each other, and whatever (choice) they go with, they go with.”