Billy Embody - SCOUT

With pressure on, can Johnny Jones turn it around this season for LSU with better chemistry?

Entering the season, Johnny Jones finds his seat pretty warm in Baton Rouge, but with a team full of better fits and personalities flying under the radar, will he alleviate some of that pressure by the end of the year?

Leaves are changing colors (well, in a lot of places where it’s not 85 degrees on Halloween), college football season is hitting the home stretch and the thumping sounds of basketballs bouncing off of hard-court floors is starting become a little more prominent.

So the time is right for the national media that covers college basketball to assign the hot seat to coaches around the land.

This season, LSU’s Johnny Jones is prominent in that number after a 2015-16 season that crashed and burned badly in late February and March, ending abruptly with a blowout loss at the SEC Tournament.

Jeff Goodman from listed the fifth-year Tigers’ coach first on his list of coaches walking the tightrope without a net as the new season rises on the immediate horizon. And while there is no argument that Jones needs his program to reverse the nosedive it took late last season, here’s a hunch: By the end of this season, that seat will have cooled considerably. 

Last season unraveled into a disaster for a lot of reasons, and despite what many choose to surmise, very little had to do with Jones and his coaches. If Jones was guilty of anything, it was being naïve in believing that talented players with NBA aspirations would make the necessary adjustments to play well with each other.

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, a team including two players with alpha personalities – one who didn’t want that role and one who wanted it so badly that he sulked when it wasn’t handed to him – never completely congealed. When senior Keith Hornsby’s season ended prematurely, those two alphas really headed in divergent directions.

If anybody believes the decision for LSU to spurn the NIT was easily made or done so without good reason, then you didn’t pay much attention toward the end of last season. The Tigers were a team around every edge, a group full of players who had no interest in pulling the same direction anymore.

All of that is in the rearview mirror, though. LSU and Jones went through a tough offseason of scrutiny in the national media, finally sliding out of the frying pan when the Tigers’ football season unraveled early and Les Miles was fired. 

LSU’s renaissance in football has relegated the basketball program to the backburner for now, and that’s not the worst thing in the world. Because some anonymity gives the Tigers a chance to mesh and establish the kind of chemistry that was really never present last year as Ben Simmons steered through his ill-fated season in Baton Rouge. 

To remove any mystery, yes, Simmons was one of those alpha personalities mentioned above and Tim Quarterman was the other. Those two simply didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t co-exist and their shared dysfunction ravaged LSU’s season.

Things are different now and Jones seems relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to coach a talented team with a chip on its shoulder this winter. 

The Tigers were pegged to finish 12th in the SEC by a media panel that covers the league. While that is understandable, it will be a shock if that’s where LSU winds up. 

Billy Embody - SCOUT

With so many players ready to emerge from Simmons’ shadow, especially one in All-American caliber guard Antonio Blakeney (above) who arguably made more progress as a freshman than Simmons, mixed with an infusion of new blood from the high and junior-college ranks, this team could be the surprise of the league.

It’s not only that the Tigers lost two talented players who were doing as much harm as good, it’s also the kind of players who arrived to fill in some gaps. Most notably, Jones and his coaches added a much-needed rim-protector in JUCO big man Duop Reath, who also might be more of a more versatile scoring threat than Simmons ever was, as well as a true point guard in freshman Skylar Mays. The other junior-college newcomer, Branden Jenkins, could also potentially add the kind of veteran savvy that Hornsby supplied, along with junior Craig Victor.

Rewind for a second: No one player can possibly replace Simmons and the exquisite set of abilities he possessed and used more often than not. He was not without flaws, though, and his inability to bring cohesion to a team as somebody who badly needed to be a leader detracted from his value.

Now there are more players who seemed to be poised to buy in to a team concept and won’t be freelancing to see which NBA scout they can impress. There’s a pervasive roll-up-the-sleeves mentality with this crew and Jones speaks like a man who has been backed into a corner and is ready to coach that way – bare-fisted, mean and desperate. 

For the first time in a while, the expectations surrounding the Tigers’ program have plummeted – so much so that the national perception is that Jones is in tons of trouble.

Whether LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva is more or less likely to fire a second major-program coach this soon with Miles costing $133,000 a month in buyout costs is hard to decipher. What isn’t up for debate is that Alleva’s basketball background from his 30-year tenure at Duke give him an affinity for the sport: He wants the Tigers to be nationally relevant on a consistent basis. 

Sometimes, though, the numbers are just too tricky to crunch and with two years remaining on Jones’ contract after this season, that could be the case.

Hot seat? Probably so. But for some coaches – most coaches – that motivates them to lead differently. They’re more focused. A little angry even. Forces them to step out of their normal character. 

That was something Jones resisted doing last year, and his reputation as one of the nicest men in college basketball became a burden instead of a strength. With this team, Jones may well have to get a little uncomfortable in his methods and pick and choose his spots to be the bad cop.

If the affable LSU coach can do that, if he can push himself to draw more out of a more experienced but still talented crew of players, then a year from now, the seat that Jones sits on won’t be a topic of conversation. 

Billy Embody - SCOUT

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