Johnson's tenure arrives at a key crossroads

Heading into his fourth season, LSU's Trent Johnson has mended some off-court problems and has compiled a team with more depth and talent than the last two troubling years. Is the 2011-12 season when the results on the floor will show the same kind of of positive direction?

First time I ever sat down with LSU basketball coach Trent Johnson just over three years ago, one thing stuck in my mind.

Win or lose, the guy was going to do things the right way and he was going to do things his way.

Whether or not those two ways intersected, I had no idea. I've covered sports long enough to know there are a lot of ways to skin a cat and if Johnson really believed his way was best, I had no reason to doubt him.

Well, three years later, here we are. In three seasons, Johnson has steered the Tigers to great heights in one season and to troubling lows in two others.

I still believe Johnson is doing things the right away and has cleaned up the messy situation that the Tigers' hoops program had turned into.

Now it's time to see if his way will get LSU back around the corner after two dismal seasons.

For just a minute, separate the on-court results with other factors that have gotten much better under Johnson's watch.

The LSU players go to class and fare well academically. The Tigers' APR is on the mend after dipping to punishable levels, which is much more important in sports other than football because of how damaging the loss of scholarships can be.

There's just a better general perception around the basketball program because Johnson – although not the bubbly, easy-to-get-to-know personality of his football and baseball counterparts at LSU – is better at connecting with the fans than John Brady was.

Johnson is straightforward and honest to be sure. Like Brady, he says what's on his mind, but Johnson does so quite a bit more gracefully.

OK, now bring the basketball results back into the equation.

No matter how you slice it, the Tigers have been bad – historically bad in some ways – the last two seasons and they have to be better in Johnson's fourth season. True to form, he's the first to say so.

Three years ago Johnson was the King of Baton Rouge after taking the talented team Brady left behind when he was let go and molding that cast of characters into an SEC championship club.

One that had North Carolina on the ropes in the second round, the Tar Heels' toughest tournament test in a six-game run to the 2009 NCAA championship.

Since then?

LSU has finished in last place in the SEC twice with only five league wins in that stretch, largely in part because of a talent dropoff that is hard to figure out.

A step back was expected, especially after losing Marcus Thornton, Garrett Temple and Chris Johnson from the first team – a budding NBA star and two players who have spent time in the league – and then Tasmin Mitchell, one of the Tigers' all-time greats, the next season.

But I don't know anybody, Johnson included, who expected the Tigers to slide this much and not show some signs of progress. Recruiting has suffered since Johnson arrived, especially in Louisiana, where an amazing crop of talent withered a bit.

The question now, with two years of Johnson and his staff restructuring the team the way they want it to be, is whether the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into view.

Johnson's answer: Without a doubt.

"We're deeper at each position," Johnson said. "Are we overly explosive? No. But we're deeper and have a chance to be bigger and stronger and just a better basketball team overall. We'll be better in all aspects assuming there's not a rash of injuries."

"It's real obvious to me when you look at the overall picture of the basketball program that we're better overall. Socially and academically, we're a lot further along than when I first got here. We've dealt with a lot of APR and attitude problems and fixed a lot of things. But you can't fast-forward guys growing up and getting bigger and stronger or having depth in your program. Everybody is looking at a quick fix, but we weren't going to do it that way. We took our time to get the right guys in here and now we have a team that I think will be much more complete."

This is the same guy who three years ago said he would fix the things that he found wrong in the program and he has been true to his word.

So should Johnson get the benefit of the doubt now that he can fix the on-court product and generate more palatable results?

A mild ripple of controversy arose last week when news seeped out that LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva's request for a contract extension for Johnson was turned away by the university's Board of Supervisors.

Spokesman Herb Vincent said the matter was more an administrative process issue, and not the BOS arbitrarily shooting down another year. Vincent also said the extension proposal could be re-introduced at the next BOS meeting.

Johnson received a new five-year deal after the SEC season in 2009 that bumped his salary to as much as $1.5 million with bonuses. He goes into the 2011-12 season with three years left on that pact.

Whether his contract is rolled over for another year or not, Johnson isn't going to coach any differently. Another thing he told me that first time we met three years ago was that if the Tigers weren't consistently winning by the time his contract was up for renewal, he'd be madder than anybody else.

Well, it seems like we've reached a crossroads in Johnson's tenure. He's confident that things are headed in the right direction and that his fourth team, with the highest profile recruit in his tenure in Mississippi big man Johnny O'Bryant, has a chance to launch a new and promising era for LSU.

Besides O'Bryant, there are more players, more depth and, presumably, more talent. Each member of last year's freshman class of Ralston Turner, Andre Stringer, Matt Derenbecker and Jalen Courtney was at least a three-star recruit, and that group has a chance to be the foundation for the next 2-3 years.

"The last few years, we've been at everybody else's mercy because of our lack of depth, our lack of athleticism and our talent level," Johnson said. "Now we're getting back to where we need to be."

And by next March, when Johnson's latest team has filled up the canvas of the 2011-12 season, we'll know whether Johnson's way and the right way mesh as well as they need to.

Tiger Blitz Top Stories