Building more than just a program

First-year LSU head coach Trent Johnson is doing more than rebuilding the basketball program around him. Halfway through the 2008-09 season, Johnson is building up and breaking down his players and none more so than sophomore point guard Bo Spencer.

Spencer has gone from the Tigers’ backup point guard last season to the team’s leader in minutes played, all under the watchful eye of Johnson. The tutelage seems to be working, as Spencer (6-1, 185) has become the Tigers’ third leading scorer and most-accurate of the team’s four main three point shooters.

“I don’t feel I’ve reached my full potential, but I feel like [Johnson] has brought out a lot,” said Spencer, who averages 12.5 points a game. “Since day one he’s been bird-dogging me – he always gets on me. He brought a player out of me – my toughness, I’m starting to see a lot of that. “

Perhaps as an indicator of Johnson’s time spent with his new players, Spencer’s numbers have gone up dramatically in areas important to guard play. Since 2007 his free throw percentage has skyrocketed from 72 to 89 percent, best on the team. Senior shooting guard Marcus Thornton noted that Johnson watches Spencer “like a hawk.” He’s not quite Chris Paul just yet, but Spencer’s 36 assists through 14 games is a full number above last season’s 43 in average.

“It’s always ‘Bo this-Bo that-Bo-this-Bo-that,’” Spencer said. “[Johnson] is a good coach who gets a lot out of his players and he’s brought a lot out of me … He won’t let me get lazy.”

Of course, it seems obvious the sophomore’s numbers would increase with such a dramatic increase in playing time as he averages 29.9 minutes per game. But even with all the extra time on the court, Spencer has the second-fewest turnovers in the starting lineup, averaging 1.5 per game. The leader in that category, sophomore center Chris Johnson, averages seven fewer minutes per game.

With the entire league schedule still to go, Johnson was wary of heaping too much praise on anyone.

“The only way I can put a barometer on [improvement] is that we’re 12-2,” Johnson said. “With league play everything gets ratcheted up … and the bottom line is that Bo has to play better. But everybody has to play better – this is a team thing. It’s not any one individual player.”

Spencer’s reward for his efforts will come in the form of Alabama guard Ronald Steele, who seems to be recovered from a junior season injury. Steele is averaging 13.4 points a game for the Crimson Tide and averages roughly four assists per game.

Going on the road to open conference play, especially after the Tigers’ 91-61 loss to Utah on Jan. 5, Spencer said his contributions on defense will be key to stopping the Tide’s attack and getting out of Tuscaloosa with a win.

“I’ve just got to play my hardest defense and hope my team is there to back me up,” he said. “I’ve got to keep [Steele] out of the lane and do my best guarding. He’s a heck of a player – if you come out too fast he’s able to read you. If you close out too fast he’ll go right by you. If you stop too short he’ll shoot the jumper.”

After the defensive breakdown in Utah, Johnson said he’ll be interested to see the effort not just from his point guard, but from the whole team.

“We’re talking about a guy who, when he was healthy, was probably a first round pick,” Johnson said. “He’s probably one of the better point guards, not in our league, but the country. No one guy is going to handle him, but we have to make him work extremely hard.”

Sunday’s game no doubt will serve as another major test for the Tigers, another measure of Johnson’s progress in his first year, and another development in Spencer’s growing career.

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