The problem isn't talent ...

TSD publisher Ben Love examines what's ailed LSU hoops and why the Tigers are on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season.

There are occasions in this profession when the work of a fellow beat writer forces you to think, to assess how you view an important topic. Almost always when something hits home to that level, it’s an indication of a piece well done, topical and one that served its purpose of provoking thought.

I had such an occasion earlier today when I read the latest edition of “3 Thoughts” from Randy Rosetta of NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

In a section entitled “Seems like we overshot the runway,” Rosetta brings to light some valid and interesting points as it pertains to LSU basketball’s inability to get over the hump this season.

But I’m not sure I agree with the overall sentiment that the Tigers’ talent on the hardwood has been overestimated, and that’s the reason why LSU has bellied under the bar of expectations, currently sitting at 7-6 in conference play with five games to go.

It’s my observation that the front-line talent, LSU’s lead four of Keith Hornsby, Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Tim Quarterman, is plenty good enough to pace a team that should comfortably make the NCAA Tournament and be the lower seed in its first game.

The problem for LSU isn’t talent; it’s a lack of talented, reliable depth, primarily in the post.

It didn’t happen by accident that Johnny Jones’ team along with Arkansas and Georgia were pegged preseason as the next three teams up in the SEC, after Kentucky and possibly Florida.

Now, the Gators, at 13-13 overall and 6-7 in the league, were esteemed incorrectly as it relates to the talent and readiness of their new nucleus. Two of Billy Donovan’s perceived top dogs, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker – both five-star prospects in the 2013 recruiting cycle – have been noteworthy recruiting misses to date. The duo this season is averaging a combined 12.3 points.

LSU and Florida aren’t alone. Georgia has also underperformed its expectations this year and the same could possibly be said for Alabama. On the other side of the fence are teams like Texas A&M and possibly Ole Miss that have played better than anticipated.

There are a lot of factors at play when you ask why. For one the coaching jobs of the Kennedys, Billy and Andy, can’t be understated or discounted.

Georgia’s Achilles’ heel has been injuries. Although recent home losses to Auburn and South Carolina, in consecutive games, are inexcusable for a team with genuine postseason dancing aspirations.

The Bayou Bengals have had unforgiveable setbacks too. LSU is the only team to lose to Missouri in conference play, and Jones’ crew also owns losses at Mississippi State and to Auburn at home.

But their issue is caused by misses in the recruiting game – not on blue-chippers like Walker and Hill for Florida, because Martin and Mickey are more than capable in the current college basketball landscape of getting a team to the Big Dance.

LSU’s signing misses have come with the players projected to give the team legitimate depth, players that were supposed to keep minutes in check for starters and allow talented, fresh units to stay on the floor at all times.

Through 13 SEC contests Hornsby is playing an average of 37.4 minutes. Right behind him are Mickey at 37.1 minutes, Martin at 34.5 minutes (despite being in semi-regular foul trouble) and Quarterman at 34.1 minutes.

After LSU’s top six contributors, which extends to include guards Jalyn Patterson (26.5 mpg) and Josh Gray (24.0 mpg), only Darcy Malone averages double-digit minutes at 12.4 mpg.

Patterson is growing into the most likely producer outside the big four while Gray has had his moments lately coming off the bench, but they haven’t been consistent.

Those two also play on the perimeter. On the inside there’s not much to write home about after Martin, an inside-out player technically, and Mickey.

In successive years LSU signed John Odo, then Darcy Malone, then Elbert Robinson III. They’re all relative non-factors. So much so that Jones has turned recently to 6-foot-5 Brian Bridgewater for some semblance of a physical edge in the paint (Bridgewater, who I believe would post 15/8 averages playing in a smaller conference, has responded admirably to his credit).

I don’t believe the NCAA Tournament was or is an unrealistic expectation for this LSU team. Quite the opposite, from a point of being 11-2 entering conference play and having everybody healthy, it took some screwing the pooch to get to this no-margin-for-error junction.

Where I agree whole-heartedly with Rosetta is in his assertion that subtracting Johnny O’Bryant, senior leaders Shavon Coleman and Andre Stringer and talented point guard Anthony Hickey was always going to leave a void for the 2014-15 team, referred to often by its coach as “young.”

But young is the name of the game in modern day college hoops, especially when you attract talent like Martin and Mickey and what’s coming in next year in Antonio Blakeney and Ben Simmons. Young, and probably not here long, is an inevitability. Good teams survive it with impactful program players.

So the biggest question I have now is will there be sufficient depth behind those two headliners next year to prevent LSU from being right back in the same position?

There’s not a doubt in my mind that Hornsby, Martin, Mickey and Quarterman is as strong as any SEC quartet aside from Kentucky and possibly Arkansas. The gap between LSU’s big guns and, say, Texas A&M’s or Ole Miss’ isn’t wide, but those teams rightly rank behind the Tigers in my book when it comes to front-line talent.

The area where LSU gets tripped up, and where other teams close the gap, is in players five through eight or nine.

Have there been underwhelming performances from the likes of Martin and Mickey? Yes, in fact we saw arguably Mickey’s worst game of the season on Tuesday. Has the chemistry been off at times and team basketball turned into a foreign concept? Yes. Are there defensive liabilities? Yes. Are there questionable coaching decisions and timeout uncertainties? Yes, although I don’t put as much stock in this notion as many do.

There have been a number of symptoms informing the illness of LSU basketball, leading to maddening inconsistency, but the chief concern isn’t talent at the top. That’s there, and in a way the Tigers haven’t known since the 2008-09 season. It’s the depth.

Jones is proud of saying that on any night any player can take hold and be the team’s alpha dog. Well, the truth is only four players can really carry that mantle, and when two or more are misfiring, injured or foul-plagued, the Tigers are infinitely more beatable because the next man up more often than not for Jones either isn’t SEC-ready now or never will be.



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