LSU Needs Strong Conference Showing To Keep Momentum


Jones Rebuilding Of Program Picking Up Speed

By John Ventola

Kentucky continues to rule Southeastern Conference basketball as Coach John Calipari seemingly recruits at least four or five prep All-Americans annually. Except for a two year national championship run by Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007, the league has been dominated by the Bluegrass Bunch for decades.

LSU enjoyed three Final Four appearances, 1981, 1986, and 2006, and the Gators proved superior in their two year title stretch, but make no mistake, the thirteen (after league expansions) other conference teams use the Wildcats as the measuring stick of championship basketball.

LSU’s Johnny Jones, now in his third year at the helm of the Tigers, has his squad playing well through the


Jones Needs To Challenge Kentucky

early games of this season. Jones, who played for Dale Brown and was a back-up freshman guard on the 1981 Final Four team, returned to his alma mater after coaching University of North Texas for eleven seasons, winning two Sun Belt championships and advancing to two NCAA playoffs. He produced five straight 20-win squads before completing his North Texas tenure with an 18-14 record.

Jones played for Brown and was an assistant under him for twelve years before going to Memphis and Alabama for short assistant stints. While Brown was never known as a great strategist or tactician, he could recruit—and recruit big. It seems that recruiting skill has rubbed off on Jones as he has improved the team’s ability level in the past couple of years, and has two of the most highly regarded high school prospects committed to Tigerland for next season. Problem will be keeping his present stars in school and not looking to jump ranks after the completion of the year.

Two decades ago a program was almost guaranteed that they would have a talented basketballer for at least three seasons (Shaquille O’Neal, many others). Now, it is mostly one and done—and even the top programs are fighting the battle to keep their players. (Duke, Kyrie Irving; almost all of Kentucky’s top recruits, John Wall, Anthony Davis, etc.)

After losing talented power forward Johnny O’Bryant to the NBA draft last year (second rounder to Milwaukee Bucks, 36th pick overall), guard Anthony Hickey, Malik Morgan, and center Shane Hammink decided to also leave LSU. Shortage of playing time and


Goal Is To Keep Key Contributors

other issues often occur and transfers are inevitable, but Jones has to learn how to keep players in place. At least until he can get a strong unit together to make a deep NCAA run and put LSU back in the elite basketball picture. Jones has completed two consecutive 9-9 SEC records, and although this year’s team lost its league opener on the road to Missouri Thursday night, the conference record should improve this season.

Two talented big men, Jarell Martin, 6’9”, from Baton Rouge, and 6’8” Jordan Mickey, of Dallas, have combined with guard transfer Josh Gray to lead LSU to an 11-3 overall record, including an impressive win on the road over West Virginia. Gray led Odessa Junior College with a 33.8 per game average last year, and has stepped in to fill the void created by Hickey’s departure. Steady Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby, and other role players will all be able to return next season

The future looks bright for Jones and the LSU program if the nucleus returns next season to join incoming freshmen Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney. Simmons is a five-star recruit and the No. 1 overall prospect in


Simmons And Blakeney Should Be Difference Makers

the country. Blakeney is rated the No. 3 shooting guard and the No. 17 prospect in the nation. The 2015-2016 season could prove to be quite special for the Bayou Bengals. Particularly if improvement continues the remainder of this year. LSU was ranked 85th in the nation as far as RPI in Jones’ first season and 68th last year when the Tigers posted a 20-14 overall record. Before the opening SEC loss at Missouri, the Tigers had a No. 18 RPI ranking.

Jones’ predecessor Trent Johnson let the Tiger program go down during his four years in Baton Rouge. The former Stanford and current TCU cage boss used a solid nucleus in his first campaign to post a 27-8 record, winning the SEC race with a 13-3 ledger and garnering SEC Coach of the Year honors. Johnson proceeded to post 2-14, 3-13, and 7-9 league records as he began to look elsewhere for a coaching spot. He basically left the basketball cupboard bare for Jones.

John Brady, who compiled a 192-139 overall record and led LSU to the 2006 Final Four in his eleven seasons, had some good moments, but also missed out on a lot of highly acclaimed recruits. His 2006 run included a hard-to earn NCAA playoff victory over coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils. Brady is now the basketball coach at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Kentucky has been the Big Cat for years. Any time you can defeat a Kentucky squad is a time to remember. And boy, do I have some fond memories. I have personally witnessed some of the most storied Tiger wins over the Wildcats. In 1961, Adolph Rupp and his team came into the old John M. Parker Ag Center never having lost to LSU. With only a couple thousand in attendance, including my dad and I, six Louisianans proved they could also play  basketball pretty well. Bossier City’s George Nattin and Springhill’s Ellis Cooper performed well as a backcourt while Baton Rouge’s Maury Drummond, New Orleans’ Tom Conklin, and Covington’s Stan Jacobs completed the starting five. Jonesboro’s John Bailey subbed when Conklin got into foul trouble, and the Tigers rolled to a 73-59 victory. It would be Coach Jay McCreary’s only defeat of Kentucky.

The next Tiger win over the Wildcats would come ten years later when what is now known as the PMAC (Pete Maravich Activity Center) opened during Press Maravich’s fifth and final year at LSU. Maravich unleashed hot-shooting guard Jeff Taylor to defeat Rupp’s team handily. Pete Maravich and his Posse were never able to defeat Kentucky during his three-year varsity stint, but not because of a lack of production from Peter The


1970 Maravich And Issel Shootout A Classic

Pointmaker. Maravivch scored 63 points in his last game at LSU, but Kentucky prevailed as Dan Issel scored 51 points in the Cats’ 121-105 victory. Boy, that was some shootout!

Brown succeeded Press Maravich as coach in 1972 and showed basketball fans early that his teams would be hustlers and true competitors. In Brown’s first game in the PMAC, a group of unknowns upset highly ranked Memphis State, led by Larry Finch and Larry Kenon. The Memphis group would lose the NCAA championship game that year to Bill Walton-led UCLA. Brown would post a 9-9 conference record in his first season (hey, Johnny Jones, sound familiar).

After four years of moderate improvement, Brown began to gather prime recruits. Durand (Rudy) Macklin, DeWayne Scales, Ethan Martin, and Al Green gave the team an overall boost in ability and led them to some tremendous accomplishments, including the 1981 Final Four. When LSU topped Kentucky 96-95 in overtime in 1978 it gave the program a stamp of authenticity. Brown’s hoopsters pulled the upset despite all five starters fouling out of the game. Kentucky would go on to win the 1978 National Championship behind an early version of the twin towers, New Orleanian Rick Robey and Mike Phillips, both 6-10, and forward Jack Givens.

For a series that had been so one-sided prior to 1978, the OT victory showed what a southern team could do nationally with some strong recruiting. LSU would defeat Kentucky seventeen times in fifteen years, 1978-1992. Another highlight of the time occurred when Brown led the Tigers to a 76-41 win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena in 1987, the largest margin of defeat by any Kentucky team on a home court.

One of the best games this writer ever witnessed was the 1981 season finale between LSU and Kentucky at the PMAC. The Tigers entered the game with an unbelievable 17-0 SEC record, but a last-second jumpshot by Kentucky All American point guard Kyle Macy ended the perfect league aspirations for LSU. It was a dagger, but the game, and that season, proved LSU could play with the big boys—and hold its own.

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