The realist in Johnson tells him the Tigers can’t be much worse.
For the next four months, Johnson will determine where his team and program are headed – for better or worse.
He’d like to arrive at a conclusion a lot sooner, starting at noon Saturday when LSU opens the 2011-12 season against Nicholls State at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
For the Tigers, the journey to better isn’t complex.
LSU has won only 11 games each of the last two seasons and is 5-27 in SEC play.
With a roster that’s seemingly been in constant flux since Johnson guided the Tigers to an SEC crown in 2008-09, there has been more time spent plugging holes and trying to survive than focused on making progress.
Now, with a promising three-man freshmen class, combined with junior transfer Justin Hamilton and three of four players back from a 2010 recruiting class, Johnson has the kind of depth he hasn’t had since he arrived four seasons ago.
Johnson still uses terms like work in progress often, and insists that none of his players have dominated pre-season practice.
But there’s a different sense of optimism with him and his players on the eve of the new season.
“There’s a certain element of trust with this team,” Johnson said.
Added Storm Warren, one of three seniors on team, two who have been with Johnson from the start, “I’ve seen the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly of it since I’ve been here. It’s been rough and I’m ready to get back to the pretty side of it again.”
Veteran leadership will come from Warren and fellow seniors Chris Bass and Malcolm White. But the foundation for the Tigers is a three-man sophomore class of Ralston Turner, Andre Stringer and Jalen Courtney, along with the newest wave of Anthony Hickey, John Isaac and Johnny O’Bryant.
Those six players give LSU the talent, depth, versatility – and with the sophomores, some experience – that has been missing most of the last two seasons.
With the influx of talent, including the 7-foot, 260-pound Hamilton, the Tigers have been able to return to their natural positions – Eddie Ludwig to small forward, Turner to a big guard/small forward, Stringer to the two-guard and so on.
“I think we’re all more comfortable with where we’re at now,” Ludwig said. “That makes a big difference in how confident guys are, and confidence is everything in basketball. We’re all back in spots where we know we have a chance to be the most competitive.”
As important as an upgrade in talent is the versatility Johnson can lean on with his new depth.
Minus the three freshmen, the Tigers went to Italy for an exhibition tour and played six games that helped form chemistry, give players experience and allowed Johnson and his coaches to install a motion-based offense that will keep everybody involved.
Johnson is also eager to see if his team can play up-tempo and seamlessly switch in and out of defenses.
“We’re going to be able to play extremely fast,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be able to pick up full court, and we’re going to be able to defend. I haven’t had that since I have been here. … Based off our conditioning, we are going to be able to really get up, play fast and defend fast with a since of urgency. We are going to be balanced in terms of scoring the ball.”
All that sounds like a great recipe for success.
But the Tigers have a lot to prove – a tall, steep mountain to climb back to respectability.
Last season the Tigers lost 11 games by double digits, eight by 19 points or more. In one dismal stretch when Warren and Turner were injured and out of action, 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.
Without a true go-to scorer, LSU struggled to create offense at times, scoring fewer than 70 points in every one of its 21 losses and ranking last in the SEC with 62.2 points a game, 57.5 in league games.
Stringer, whose 11.2 points a game were second to Turner (12.3), said the Tigers were “fed up” by the end of last season.
“We got tested a lot last season, went through a lot none of us had ever experienced,” Stringer said. “We’re ready to turn things around.
“Things have changed now. We’re a lot deeper and we have guys with a lot of experience and the freshmen bring in some talent. We don’t have any excuses. We’ve got to get better.”
For that to happen, the four newcomers all have to chime in some way or another.
Hamilton has two years of experience at Iowa State and will be key inside as are bounder and as a passer in the motion sets.
Hickey should eventually emerge as the starting point guard.
Isaac is a hard-nosed swing man who thrives off intensity and making teammates around him better – the latest home-grown version of Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell.
And O’Bryant is a big-body (6-9, 262) banger inside who should provide a a presence as a scorer and rebounder in the paint. He has a chance to be the center piece down the road and is the highest profile recruit Johnson has lured to LSU in his tenure.
Johnson called Hamilton a man and deemed him ready to contribute right away.
The learning curve for the freshmen will be a quick one as well in their coach’s eyes.
“All three of them have physical attributes that are going to enable them to play against certain people,” Johnson said. “It’s my responsibility that I make sure that I don’t put them in situations where they’re asked to do too much and can’t use their natural ability and react and play the game. Sometimes when you’re coaching you can give guys too much and I won’t do that with these three guys.”
He may not have to.
With more talent and competition every day in practice – blended with a sense of urgency to erase the taste of the last two seasons – the freshmen have no choice but to ratchet up their play.
Along with everybody else.
“Guys are bigger, more physical and faster and you throw that in with the intensity we play with every day at practice, and guys understand pretty quickly that you have to play hard all the time,” Turner said. “We’re going to get better this season because all of us are pushing each other.”
G Anthony Hickey (5-11, 182, Fr.)
G Andrew Stringer (5-9, 178, So.)
G Ralston Turner (6-6, 205, So.)
F Storm Warren (6-7, 230, Sr.)
C Justin Hamilton (7-0, 260, Jr.)
F Malcolm White (6-9, 220, Sr.)
G Chris Bass (6-1, 190, Sr.)
F Eddie Ludwig (6-9, 210, Jr.)
F Jalen Courtney (6-8, 228, So.)
F Johnny O’Bryant (6-9, 262, Fr.)
Coach: Trent Johnson (49-49, fourth season at LSU; 208-170, 13th season)
Coach: J.P. Piper (78-123, 8th season)
The Colonels won last year’s meeting 62-53 to become the first in-state team to beat LSU at the PMAC since 1988.
If Hickey starts, he would be the first freshman point guard to do so for LSU since Torris Bright in 2000.
LSU’s roster features three seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.
Saturday’s game is one of only two against in-state foes this season for the Tigers. The other is against Grambling on Dec. 29.
The Tigers return 76.4% of their scoring from last season, as well as the top two rebounders (Warren 5.7, Malcolm White 5.1)