LSU head coach John Brady, after enduring the lean years of NCAA scholarship restrictions, is up to his full allotment of 13 and making the most of his signees by bringing in players who can help LSU almost immediately. After struggling through situations of wondering how he would keep five players healthy and on the court, Brady now has the "problem" of figuring out which five players are going to play the most.
"Everybody on the team is thinking about fighting for their position," said senior starting point guard Torris Bright. "Everybody is going to play as hard as they can play and practice as hard as they can practice."
Unlike practice sessions in the past when the Tigers were at times challenged to find ten players to scrimmage, the influx of newcomers has LSU "two-deep and competitive" at every position according to Brady.
One of the more intense competitions is taking place for the two post positions. Senior forward Brad Bridgewater is coming off a 2001-02 season in which he started 31 of 34 games, but he now has big company in the form of juniors Shawnson Johnson and Jaime Llordea. Both are sturdy 6-foot-9 players who give Brady the option of using an offense similar to the one he ran in the two seasons that Jabari Smith and Stromile Swift led the Tigers.
Johnson is finally ready to play his first LSU game after having to sit out last season due to academic reasons. The Green Oaks-Shreveport graduate completed two years of eligibility at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, but did not complete his course work in time to enroll at LSU in the fall of 2001. And since the Southeastern Conference does not allow mid-term junior college transfers to play a partial year, Johnson was allowed to practice with the Tigers but had to watch games in street clothes on the bench.
"Yeah, it feels good to be a Tiger man," said Johnson. "I've been dedicated to being a Tiger since I went to junior college. I'm happy to be here. I went through a lot of things to be here, but I'm here.
"I struggled in my books a little bit. I practiced with (the Tigers) and it just hurt to sit and watch them play and I couldn't get in to help my team."
It's no coincidence that Johnson will play in an offense similar to the one that featured Swift. The two were teammates on an AAU team in their high school days, and Johnson decided at that point he would attend school wherever Swift went.
The two still communicate every now and then, and Swift tells Johnson the basketball experience at LSU is "tough but fair" and that he can expect to improve while he's here.
"We've got some nice big bodies," said Johnson of his teammates. "I'm looking forward to bringing a few things to the table, like big rebounds. I'm a glass eater, you know, a lot of put-backs. Free throws have got to be my bread-and-butter."
Lloreda is the second National Junior College Player of the Year to come to LSU to play for Brady, joining Lamont Roland in that distinction. Last season at Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah, Lloreda led his team to the NJCAA national championship with 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Dixie posted an amazing 69-5 record in Lloreda's two seasons there.
"He's just an original guy," Bridgewater said about Lloreda. "He's got a game of his own. He's tough, works hard. He's relentless. He never stops. He's always going for that board, trying to get to the basket. You really can't compare him to anybody. He's got a tenacious attitude and goes at it."
Lloreda, a native of Colon, Panama, came to the United States for his senior year in high school and played at Berkshire Prep in Miami before heading off the Utah junior college. His command of English is a bit behind his mastery of basketball, but he is very enthusiastic about his opportunity to play major college basketball at LSU.
"I don't like it," he says. "I love it."
In the early sessions of practice, Lloreda has been a split second slow during some individual drills due to the language hurdle but slips right into the flow once the Tigers turn to scrimmaging. Since the coaching staff and veteran players can provide examples of what he needs to do, Lloreda is able to understand and adapt quickly.
"His motor runs pretty good," Brady said. "He plays extremely hard. He's got a nice basketball sense level, too. He's not quite a Ph.D. (but) he's got a nice intelligence level on how to play the game. He understands the game. He may have some communication barriers…but his work ethic's tremendous. He loves to play."
A few other newcomers had a much shorter trip to get to LSU than Lloreda did. Freshman guard Darrel Mitchell comes from just across the Atchafalaya Swamp in St. Martinville to build upon the reputation he established as Louisiana's Mr. Basketball last season. A 5-foot-11, 174-pound athlete, he has spent a lot of time in the weight room since coming to LSU and has retained his shooting touch while improving his strength.
In addition to getting into the flow of college basketball practice, Mitchell says he's enjoyed the transition to the college lifestyle.
"It's pretty exciting," said Mitchell. "Going to the football games, it gets my
intensity higher to get ready for basketball season."
Mitchell averaged 24.6 poins, 3.3 assists, 2.9 steals and 3.1 rebounds a game as a senior at St. Martinville to help his team earn the Class 4A state title under the guidance of his father, Darrel Mitchell Sr. As for any fatherly advice his former coach has to offer, Darrel Jr. says he's not heard that much since "Dad's got his own basketball team to worry about."
Mitchell will fight for playing time at the point guard and shooting guard positions with two new transfers. Courtney Trask is a 6-3, 185-pound junior who will play for the LSU Tigers after spending two seasons with the Memphis Tigers. The Baton Rouge-Parkview Baptist product sat out last season but was able to practice with the team, giving him an edge over the other newcomers in terms of his knowledge of the Brady system.
"We were going to sign him out of high school but the scholarship limitations wouldn't allow us to offer him a scholarship," Brady explained. "You can't sign players of that caliber if you can't offer them a scholarship, so he went to Memphis for two years."
At Memphis, Trask averaged 9.4 points, 4.6 assists and 2.7 rebounds as a freshman when he started 28 out of 31 games and was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team. As a sophomore, he logged 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in starting eight out of the 20 games he played.
The other transfer now at LSU is sophomore Tony Gipson, a 6-1, 162-pounder from Farmerville, La., by way of Panola Junior College in Carthage, Texas. Gipson did not play basketball as a high school senior but was an all-district player his junior year. He gained his eligibility in just one year at Panola and averaged 25 points a game in his freshman season there.
Tony's older brother Teddy completed his eligibility at Arkansas last season, but LSU had always been the leading college contender for the speedy perimeter player.
"When I was growing up, it was my dream," he said. "I used to watch Pistol Pete videos a lot when I was younger, trying to do what he did."
In fact, Gipson admitted to watching the movie "The Pistol" just recently and appreciates the fact he'll share time on the court with walk-on redshirt freshman Josh Maravich, the youngest son of the late Pistol Pete Maravich.
While Teddy Gipson didn't try to steer his brother to Arkansas, Tony says he was still a very big influence on him when it came to basketball. When Teddy would get involved in a pick-up game with his friends, it was the younger and smaller Tony who got to round out one of the teams and play with the big boys.
Teddy also helped his little brother establish good practice habits and made him work on his speed – a trait that has become a trademark of his game. Brady has already said Gipson is the fastest player on his team.
"These guys here think it's natural," said Gipson. "But I told them as I was growing up, my brother was real quick and was a real influence on me. He'd do drills and then tell me, ‘OK Tony, you do this.' I was just doing what he was doing."
Like Gipson, freshman forward Tim Bush (6-6, 240) also did not play basketball in his senior year in high school. It was determined that Bush received improper financial assistance to attend Archbishop Shaw in Marrero, so he was declared ineligible to participate in sports.
Bush averaged 13 points and eight rebounds as a junior at Shaw but saw his recruiting stock really rise after having a great summer playing in organized amateur games. Most analysts looked for Bush to get top billing as a recruit during his senior season, but the scholarship issue arose before he could get on the court.
"The support from my friends and family kept me strong," said Bush. "The support from the coaching staff in Baton Rouge was just awesome. All I could do from that was just work harder. Coach Brady pushes me hard every single day, so all I could do is take all that in a positive way and keep working hard."
After a year layoff from basketball, Bush says his teammates made him run a mile after their daily pick-up games before practice officially began for the Tigers. His conditioning has improved as evidenced by his showing in pre-season workouts, but he still has some rust on his game. But even when he does struggles, Bush takes critiquing from the coaching staff in stride and can be heard offering encouragement to his teammates.
"It was a blessing that I had the opportunity to sign here," said Bush. "Look at these guys. I get to play with Ronald Dupree, Brad Bridgewater – it's just a dream come true."
Rounding out the newcomers for 2002-03 is walk-on Mildon Ambres of Opelousas. The 6-5, 217-pounder is expected to help the Tigers at off-guard and small forward and is expected to get a scholarship next season.
An honorable mention choice for the Class 4A All-State team in 2002, Ambres averaged 18.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game at Opelousas High.