By Randy Rosetta
Coaches don't succeed without having a certain level of self-belief. A confidence that their way will work sooner or later.
That's certainly the case for LSU's Trent Johnson, but as he gets set to launch his fourth season, it's clear that the time is now for the Tigers to show notable progress.
LSU embarks on the new season – an important one for Johnson's future – with plenty of optimism and upward mobility after back-to-back last-place SEC West division finishes.
Besides a core group of seven returning veterans, the Tigers' roster also includes three freshmen and junior transfer Justin Hamilton, who played two seasons at Iowa State.
Johnson has a more complete team with more talent than the last two crews , although the Tigers are untested in some areas.
"We're deeper at each position," Johnson said. "We'll be better in all aspects assuming there's not a rash of injuries."
Makes sense, because there aren't a lot of ways LSU could be worse than last season.
The Tigers lost 11 games by double digits on the way to an 11-21 finish (3-13 in the SEC), eight by 19 points or more. In one dismal stretch when regular starters Storm Warren and Ralston Turner were injured, LSU lost four straight games by 20 points or more (at Kentucky, vs. Ole Miss, at Tennessee, at Alabama) for the first time since the mid-1960s.
But that was then.
That was with two freshmen – Turner and Andre Stringer – stepping forward as the Tigers' most consistent scorers and with junior forward Malcolm White struggling to adjust after sitting out the previous season as a transfer from Ole Miss.
And that was with a bench that rarely provided much firepower for a team that scored fewer than 70 points in every one of its 21 losses and ranked last in the SEC with 62.2 points a game, 57.5 in league games.
Part of the struggles were based on the youth, but execution was also a hurdle the Tigers constantly encountered as well as Johnson tried mixing and matching lineups. The result was hit-and-miss chemistry that led to LSU squandering second-half leads on a regular basis.
"You can't fast forward guys growing up and getting bigger and stronger or having depth in your program," Johnson said. "We'll be better and we have to be better in our offensive efficiency and our ability to defend and rebound and take care of the ball. If we do things and guys buy into what we coach them, we're going to be a different team."
The frontcourt is where the Tigers are the most experienced with Warren, White and junior Eddie Ludwig , but they also lost Garrett Green and Matt Derenbecker, who both got transfers. This is also where the competition will be keenest for playing time.
Hamilton brings a 6-11, 260-pound frame to the mix to alleviate some pressure from the smaller, athletic veterans, and freshman Johnny O'Bryant (6-9, 250) is the highest profile recruit Johnson has landed in his tenure. O'Bryant is expected to be one of the SEC's top rookies.
Ludwig is a hybrid-type who gives the Tigers some versatility on the wing.
In the backcourt, Ralston and Stringer both showed SEC readiness last season, displaying the knack for scoring in spurts.
Ralston topped LSU with 12.3 points a game, while Stringer supplied 11.2 a game and led the Tigers with 57 three-pointers, though his long-range accuracy dipped late in the season against bigger and more physical SEC defenders.
LSU's hopes of marked improvement hinges greatly on whether those two can take another step forward. Freshman Anthony Hickey was a late signee and a major boost to the recruiting class. Kentucky's 2011 Mr. Basketball, Hickey is a true point guard who should free up Turner and Stringer to operate as shooting guards.
In the final analysis, LSU will be better because there isn't much room in the wrong direction. But how notable will the improvement be for a team with only one player (Turner) who got a sniff on the 2011 postseason All-SEC teams?
Hamilton's impact has to be strong, not necessarily as a scorer, but more so on the glass and as a passer in the motion offense.
O'Bryant has to make a splash inside as well and give the Tigers a reliable scoring threat from the paint.
And the young guard trio has to be able to give LSU scoring in transition and from outside the arc in half-court sets. If that perfect storm takes shape, the Tigers could be in the hunt for a postseason berth.