Jordan Mickey looks to end Tigers' NCAA Tournament drought
Johnny Jones entered his second season in Baton Rouge with a once-dormant fanbase buzzing at the return of All-SEC junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III and the addition of coveted in-state recruit Jarell Martin, a McDonald’s All-American in 2013.
Add in high-flying freshman Jordan Mickey in the post with diminutive guards Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer manning the outside, many pundits pegged 2013 as the year the Tigers would return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence.
But shoddy road defense coupled with the expected growing pains for its freshman duo limited the Tigers as they limped to a 9–9 record in a mediocre SEC, including a 2–7 mark on the road.
A marquee 87–82 home win against eventual national runner-up Kentucky gave fans parched for success a quick glimpse of what Jones’ team could have been, but a second round exit in the NIT showed the Tigers’ shortcomings.
Jones heads into 2014 without O’Bryant, who was selected by the Bucks in the second round of the NBA Draft and Hickey, a three-year starter at point guard who transferred to Oklahoma State after being suspended several times during Jones’ first two seasons.
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Without O’Bryant bullying in the paint, Jones speculates many teams will deploy defenses tailored to stopping his sophomore duo of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin.
Martin had his progress hindered by an early season ankle injury, but he rebounded to become a consistent force at both power forward and on the wing. Twelve of his 18 double-figure scoring games came down the stretch in the SEC and he garnered a spot alongside Mickey on the All-SEC Freshman Team. Mickey became only the second player in LSU history to block 100 shots in a season — joining Shaquille O’Neal. With O’Bryant no longer around, Mickey will be a much larger part of the Tigers’ offense as a sophomore.
Jones added 7-1 freshman Elbert Robinson III, who has trimmed to a svelte 288 pounds after playing at 300 in high school. He looks to be a promising addition inside to take attention away from Mickey and Martin.
LSU Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 20-14, 9-9 SEC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2009
Coach: Johnny Jones (39-26 overall at LSU, 18-18 SEC)
SEC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 64
With Hickey out of the fold, Jones will turn to two transfers to stabilize the perimeter and complement his potent inside game. Josh Gray, who averaged 33.8 points per game in 2013 at Odessa (Texas) College after starting his career at Texas Tech, appears to be Hickey’s heir apparent at point guard.
“Josh has the ability to create off the dribble, score from outside, and he can get to the rim because of his ball handling skills,” Jones says. “He would certainly be the quarterback for our team. I was very impressed with his ability to lead his team (at Odessa), and I think he can bring those same qualities to our program.”
Alongside Gray is UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby, who practiced with the Tigers last season. Hornsby made quite the impression on Jones, who called the son of legendary jazz musician Bruce Hornsby the hardest worker he’d ever been around in 30 years. Hornsby, a bruising 210-pounder, fits into Jones’ style as a wing.
“He just happens to be bigger and stronger than what we’ve had at that position the last few years,” Jones says. “He’s one of those guys that can really elevate, get in the paint area and score. Great catch-and-shoot guy off ball screens as well.”
Sophomore Tim Quarterman, a lanky 6-6 guard who served as Hickey’s backup last season, returns as one of the team’s best full court defenders. Freshmen Aaron Epps and Jalyn Patterson will also jockey for time.
LSU was clearly a disappointment last season, but the Tigers still boast one of the most talented rosters in the league. The frontcourt features two emerging stars in Mickey and Martin, and the backcourt has been bolstered by the two veteran transfers. There is, however, a lack of proven depth.
Jones, who played for Dale Brown at LSU in the early 1980s, has recruited very well in his two years at his alma mater — the No. 1 player in the Class of 2015, Ben Simmons, has committed to LSU — but the Tigers have yet to break the .500 mark in the SEC during his tenure. That needs to change if LSU hopes to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008-09.
Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby will anchor the Tigers’ scoring on the perimeter, replacing two veteran guards who had been in Johnny Jones’ system for two years. Elbert Robinson III and Brian Bridgewater will provide support inside while freshmen Jalyn Patterson and Aaron Epps will contend for playing time in the backcourt.