Then it was working tirelessly on the recruiting trail for 2009, 2010 and beyond.
Now, the time has finally come for Johnson and his players to hit the hardwood for their first official fall practice session, and Friday can’t get here quick enough.
“Make no mistake about it, I like being in the gym and being in the situation where you get a chance to compete,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how much players or kids enjoy practice, but I know I do. There’s nothing like it to me.”
LSU returns four starters from last year’s squad that went 13-18 overall and 6-10 in the SEC.
Leading the way is the conference’s second leading scorer in Marcus Thornton, along with Chris Johnson, Garrett Temple, and Terry Martin. The Tigers lost Anthony Randolph as he opted to jump to the NBA, but they get a big boost by the return of Tasmin Mitchell, who suffered a season-ending injury and played in only three games.
LSU returns nine players who saw action in the 2007-08 campaign and Johnson welcomes four incoming freshmen from the 2008 signing class.
Whenever a new coach takes over a program there is always going to be change, and there was one thing that bothered Johnson early on as he looked ahead to the 2008-09 campaign.
“I mentioned it to the guys in individual meetings that I thought did they a decent job of buying into what we want to have done and changing the negativity and culture that’s been surrounding the basketball program over the past four to four and a half months that I’ve been here,” he said.
In changing the mindset of his players and getting everyone on the same page, Johnson went through every game film from last season to get familiar with the players.
In going through the film, there were several things that jumped out at him and that needed to be addressed.
“Without question our inability to compete at a high level on the defensive end was something I noticed early on,” he said. “In terms of the transition baskets they were giving up and their lack of effort and intensity to rebounding, and the commitment to take care of the ball. Those were some things I saw that I knew we had to improve on.”
Those were areas that needed to be addressed, but before they could be corrected, the players had to take ownership, not only individually, but also collectively.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s easy to play the blame game,” said Johnson. “You can blame it on the previous staff; you can blame it on the coaches. But like I told the guys, you’ve all played basketball long enough to know that if you don’t guard then you’re going to struggle.
“There was just a lack of commitment on their part to do that,” added Johnson. “I think with each player they have to look within themselves and know that it was their fault. But a lot of that had to do with strength and conditioning.”
Johnson said that his players have done a good job with the off-season strength and conditioning workouts and now it’s time to see what they can do on the court.
The first-year headman does not have a lot of experienced depth to work with in his inaugural season, but he does have some talent at his disposal.
Marcus Thornton finished second in the conference last season with 19.6 points a game. He will give the Tigers a scoring threat from anywhere on the court, but Johnson will be looking for more than just scoring from the senior guard.
“Marcus can score and he can shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “He’s just got to be more disciplined in terms of taking a good shot and then getting back and guarding somebody. It’s not the exchange program where you score and then go down and let him score.”
Shot selection was something that plagued the Tigers last season as they finished dead last in the SEC in field goal percentage (.429) and 3-point shooting (.322).
“Knowing what’s your shot is the key,” Johnsons said. “That’s why I say when, where and why. When are you getting your shot? Where are you getting your shot? And why are you getting your shot? Then also the percentages were probably low because there wasn’t a sense of urgency with taking a shot that you can make. There were guys running around shooting the ball just because other guys shot it.”
Getting Mitchell back will help offset the loss of Randolph, who led the Tigers in rebounding (8.5) and blocked shots (70), and was second in scoring at 15.6 points a contest.
When healthy, Mitchell pumped in 14.5 points a game as a sophomore, and was eighth in the conference in field goal percentage at .466.
Johnson is excited to see what Mitchell can do when healthy, but he urges the fans to be patient as it will take time for his junior forward to get back into form.
“He (Mitchell) has a lot of energy and I can see that he’s strong and can shoot, but I want to caution people in all fairness to Taz that this game is hard enough to play when you’re playing every day, but he’s had three games in a year and a half,” said Johnson. “So there’s going to be some rust. Is he working hard? Yes he is. Is he optimistic about having a great year? Yes he is. But, I reserve my comments because I haven’t seen him in the heat of battle. But I’ve heard he is a warrior, so we’ll see.”
Quintin Thornton, who added 12 pounds to his frame, and Mitchell will give LSU some much needed help on the glass where the Tigers were one of the worst teams in the conference, averaging 35.7 rebounds a game.
That statistic does not sit well with the boss man and his players know that by now.
“The rebounding are points of emphasis that have been made every day and are going to continue to be emphasized on,” Johnson said. “If we don’t defend, we don’t rebound, or take care of the ball in practice, then you’re not going to shoot the ball. That’s desire. That’s a commitment. That’s what rebounding is. It’s not about the athletic ability. It has nothing to do with strength. It’s about their willingness just to understand.”
Several players have made a commitment to get better on both ends of the court and one of the players that has impressed Johnson is another Johnson.
“Chris Johnson is one of those players that want to get better and works very hard to improve his game,” said the headman. “We’re going to need him to have a good year.”
LSU will also need a good year from Temple and Martin, who averaged 6.4 and 8.3 points, respectively.
There is a lot of excitement surrounding the men’s basketball program and fans are anxious to see the Tigers in action when they open the season on Nov. 15 against Jackson State.
So, what can LSU fans expect to see in a Trent Johnson coached-team?
“I’d like to think we’re going to compete at a high level with a sense of urgency and just defend and rebound, and stay on even keel and play with some passion, but not over the top,” Johnson said. “We just want them to represent LSU and the kids themselves. We want them to represent their parents in a respectful fashion and respect competition.”
Now, the time has finally come where Johnson can put his players to the test and mold them into the team that he is looking for.
He knows there will be tough and strenuous times ahead, but he wants them to have fun, because after all, it is the game they all love.
“You got to love what you’re doing,” Johnson said. “You hear people my age talk about retirement, but hopefully I’ll be here for the rest of my life. And if I’m not and we don’t get this done then I’ll probably be buried in the Mississippi.”
You’re in South Louisiana, coach. Down here they bury you on the bayou.
“I guess it’s the same thing,” he said with a laugh.
Several players have battled injuries over the course of their careers and that is Trent Johnson’s chief concern heading into the season.
“Our margin of error is slim and we have to be healthy,” he said. “We had Taz, Chris Johnson, and Garrett Temple, three guys who were pretty good players on this team for years that have been injury-prone. Everybody looks good except for Garrett Green.”
Green, a 6-10, 235-pound sophomore, has missed the last two and a half weeks due to a problem with his back. An MRI was recently done and the staff will know more about his availability in the coming days.
If Green is slowed by the injury and it continues to bother him then that will be a bigger blow to the Tigers than some may have thought.
“That really worries me because he was a kid I was really looking forward to working with when he’s healthy,” Johnson said. “He shoots the ball well and he wants to be good and have a good year. I felt that we would have a good three-man rotation with him alongside of Chris and rotating him with Taz.”
And when it comes to injuries, Johnson has a strict policy in that department.
“I don’t play kids injured,” he said. “When you start talking about your back, your knees and your lower extremities, I’m more worried about in 10 to 15 years down the road if they’re able to do normal things. I won’t play a kid that’s injured.”