Through the first two years in Baton Rouge, it’s been a battle of highs and lows for Trent Johnson.
In 2008 he inherited a wealth of talent, which he led to a 27-8 overall record before a Sweet 16 exit at the hands of North Carolina – who went on to win the National Championship.
In 2009 he lost that talent and the Tigers stumbled to an 11-20 finish, going just 2-14 in Southeastern Conference play.
The one constant: recruiting.
Despite taking over a program with a less than stellar Academic Progress Rate (APR), the three classes Johnson has assembled have been strong.
In year one it was a two-man group of Aaron Dotson and Eddie Ludwig. Ludwig was a 6-foot-7, 195-pound local boy with offers from schools like California and Davidson. Dotson was from Seattle, Johnson’s neck of the woods, and he sported offers from Louisville, Wake Forest, Washington and others.
By 2010, Johnson had more wiggle room.
He scouted and offered prospects from across the map, eventually settling on four: Andre Stringer, Ralston Turner, Matt Derenbecker and Jalen Courtney.
Stringer and Derenbecker were two-time Gatorade Player of the Year award winners. Turner was First-Team All-State in Alabama for three straight seasons. Courtney, an All-State selection out of Provine High in Jackson, Miss., won a pair of 5A state championships.
On Wednesday, Johnson added another chapter as the Nov. 10 early signing period saw John Isaac and Johnny O’Bryant ink with the Tigers.
O’Bryant, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound power forward, should provide immediate help to a Tiger frontcourt that has struggled with the lack of big bodies.
“Johnny O'Bryant, if he was in a Tiger uniform today he would be one of our three best players,” Johnson said. “He has a wealth of experience with USA Basketball and is one of the top players in the country.
“He gives us a physical presence with some durability on the front line and a strong skill set. He is a young man that Tiger fans need to enjoy every second of every day, because he has a chance to be an impact player and play basketball for a long time.”
Though Stringer and Turner are eyeing starting spots as freshmen, O’Bryant is considered Johnson’s biggest fish to date. The Cleveland, Miss. native – who had offers from the likes of Georgia Tech, Maryland and Ole Miss – is ranked as a five-star and the nation’s No. 6 power forward.
After visits to three schools, O’Bryant made his decision just short of a month ago.
“When I went down for a visit it felt like home,” O’Bryant told Scout.com. “I felt very comfortable. My mother and I talked and we just did what was best for us.”
Hoping to be used as a face-up four man, O’Bryant feels that his skill set will give him an opportunity to make an immediate impact in the SEC.
“As a four man they want me to step out and make a jump shot, and I can take guys off the dribble from the high post and just create,” O’Bryant said.
“It’s just the opportunity to be able to come in and play from the jump and make a big impact on the program. They’ve also had a lot of power forwards go to the league, so I liked that too.”
The second pickup, Pickering three-star John Isaac, isn’t quite as heralded. The simple explanation: Isaac sat his out his junior season with an ACL injury, one of the most important years of evaluation for prospects with expectations of playing at the next level.
“If that injury had not occurred, he probably would have been one of the top 50 or 60 players in the country,” Johnson said. “He is a very physical and athletic young man. When you talk about physical, he is also playing football this season.”
Isaac’s spot on the defensive line for Pickering’s football team should be the telltale sign that he is back to full health for the start of his senior basketball campaign.
On Wednesday, fresh off a low-key announcement ceremony at the school, Pickering basketball coach George Thomas wore the look of a proud headman.
“John’s out there on cloud nine,” he laughed. “We are all so proud of him. We had a little thing in front of the students where he talked about his commitment and everyone took pictures and stuff like that.”
Though he wouldn’t admit it to Isaac, Thomas is also happy that the choice was the Tigers.
“I didn’t want to influence him, but in the back of my mind I was hoping LSU would be his decision,” he said. “It worked out for the best, because as soon as John met with coach Johnson he knew that would be the staff he wanted to play basketball for in college.”
The underlying theme with Isaac has always been work ethic, which was put to the ultimate test when he suffered his season-ending knee injury.
While the road to recovery was long and often hard to navigate, Isaac – as he had shown throughout his playing days - never lost sight of the ultimate goal.
“He stayed on top of everything while he was away, and he came back in shape and stronger than ever,” Thomas said. “You hear about the guys who really go after it, and that’s John. We would go and play a game and he might have a bad shooting night, then we get home at midnight and he’s up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. just shooting.
“He once had a C in a class, and he was upset with even that. The next thing I knew he had put in the extra hours and brought it up. That’s the way he’s been on and off the court.”
Isaac, like O’Bryant, pointed to Johnson and his assistants as one of the main reasons they decided to wear purple and gold in college.
“It’s like a big family there,” Isaac said.
Third-year assistant coach Brent Scott helped spearhead the efforts, drawing praise from Johnson, O’Bryant and Isaac for his efforts on the recruiting trail.
“Coach Scott and I spent a lot of time talking about things,” O’Bryant said. “He’s on the phone a lot and he and I talk a lot.”
Said Johnson of the Rice graduate: “My assistant coaches did an excellent job, especially Brent Scott."
While the day was certainly one for LSU basketball to smile upon, Johnson encouraged fans to tempter their expectations until the pair step onto the court and prove their worth.
“Fans should judge this recruiting class at the end of their career, not at the start of it,” he said. “There is a lot of hard work in front of us. There is a lot of hard work in front of both of these young men.
“But they are looking forward, as much as I am, to achieving their goals at LSU and beyond.”
Watch video of O'Bryant from May 16, 2009 AAU 17-under Tournament. Andre Stringer, No. 1 in the clips, is expected to start at point guard for LSU this season.