A big turnaround

Trent Johnson's hiring last April signified change to the men's basketball program after 11 years under John Brady. Change was imminent with Johnson heading to Baton Rouge from Stanford, but very few expected this much change so soon.

In Brady’s final season, LSU was 8-13 overall and 1-6 in Southeastern Conference play before he was relieved of his duties. The Tigers fell to Tennessee, 47-45, in Butch Pierre’s first game as interim coach and that marked the halfway point of the SEC schedule.


On Feb. 9, 2008, LSU sat at 1-7 in conference play and 8-14 overall.


Now, one year to the exact date, the Tigers found themselves 19-4 overall and sitting on top of the SEC overall standings with a 7-1 mark.


LSU’s roster has plenty of familiar faces with four starters back from last season in Marcus Thornton, Chris Johnson, Terry Martin and Garrett Temple. Anthony Randolph took off for the NBA, but Tasmin Mitchell moved into his spot after missing all but three games in 2007-08 with a shin injury.


With that nucleus returning, expectations were high for Johnson and the Tigers, but not many expected LSU to be leading the SEC at the midway point of the schedule.


The Tigers have improved dramatically and for those who haven’t yet seen them play they can always turn to some statistics for proof. Even though LSU has one more non-conference game under its belt this season the number don’t lie.


Exactly one year ago, LSU was averaging 67.8 points a game and giving up 68.9. Field goal shooting was at 42.6 percent while opponents were hitting 42.0 percent from the floor. Behind the arc, LSU had taken 460 shots and made 145 for 31.5 percent, while opponents were knocking down 34.4 percent of their treys.


Two more alarming stats was opponents outrebounded the Tigers on average by nearly three a game, and LSU committed 319 turnovers with only 257 assists to their credit.


Fast forward to Feb. 9, 2009 and the results are glaringly different.


Instead of being outscored on average by 1.1 points a game, the Tigers are outscoring opponents on average of 13.3 a game with Johnson’s squad averaging 76.2 against 62.9 for the opposition. Field goal percentage is up from 42.6 to 46.0, and opponents’ percentage went from 42.0 to 39.7 this year.


The three stats that reveal more, however, are three-point shooting, rebounding and protecting the basketball.


The Tigers have attempted 103 fewer three-pointers and are hitting 39.5 percent compared to 35.3 from a year ago, and they are defending away from the basket better with opponents hitting 32.2 percent compared to 38.0 last season.


The rebound margin has been squared away as well with LSU holding a 7.3 advantage as opposed to being outrebounded at 2.3 a game last year, and the team has 106 more assists and 35 fewer turnovers compared to a year ago.


What is the reason for all of the success? Is it better coaching? Is it simply due to a fresh start for the players? Is it getting Tasmin Mitchell back?


There are many factors that have aided the quick turnaround, but two players in particular have really flourished under Johnson.


A healthy Mitchell was a big boost for the Tigers and seeing him play as well as he has in his new role has been refreshing.


In his first three years, Mitchell played the three (small forward) and was more of a wing player. He moved down to the four (power forward) this year and his stats are up across the board. Mitchell is second behind Marcus Thornton in scoring at 15.6 points a game, and his 6.8 rebounds are second to only Chris Johnson. Both of those marks are career highs for the Denham Springs-native.


It took Mitchell some time early in the season to get used to playing with his back to the goal and lately he’s shown that he still has an outside shot that makes him even tougher to defend.


“Since I got here I had been playing the small forward and that required me to shoot a lot from the perimeter,” Mitchell said. “Since I’ve been playing the four (power forward) it’s kind of limited that, but I still have it in my repertoire. I’m just trying to get high percentage shots.”


Another change that may go unnoticed to some has been the play of Thornton.


A year ago at this stage of the game, Thornton was averaging 19.5 points a game. Heading into Wednesday’s matchup with Mississippi State the senior guard is averaging 20.0, so some may think he’s right on par with last year.


However, that could not be farther from the truth.


Through eight conference games last season, Thornton made 148 of 352 shots from the floor for 42 percent, and he knocked down 62 of 173 treys for 35.8 percent. His turnover to assist ratio was 52-29 and not what any coach would want to see.


With eight SEC games behind him this campaign, Thornton has attempted 24 fewer shots from the field but made 15 more than last year, and he is hitting 49.7 percent of his shots. The Baton Rouge-native has a better shot selection as he’s attempted 59 fewer three-pointers and he’s hitting 41.2 percent on the season.


Oh, and the turnover to assist ratio has been reversed to where he has 45 assists against only 33 turnovers on the year.


Obviously, there is much more that led to LSU’s turnaround, but with statistics being something that fans can relate to they give them an idea of just how much things have changed.


Now that LSU has gone from being the hunter to the hunted, at least for now, Johnson and Co. can expect a raucous crowd when they travel to Mississippi State on Wednesday.


The Tigers won in Baton Rouge 20 days ago, but winning in Starkville will be a tall task.


If LSU does come away with a victory and gets a two-game cushion in the West then this team will be in a position to make a run at the end of the year. Four of the last seven games will be at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and two of the road contests are against Arkansas and Auburn, who are 1-7 and 3-5 in the SEC, respectively, with the other road matchup at Kentucky.


There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, but for the first time in three years LSU fans are getting excited about March Madness.


The fans have that luxury to look ahead, but you won’t see these Tigers even taking a peak at the conference standings, much less tournament brackets.


“Coach Johnson lets us know where we stand, and we have it posted in the locker room, but I know personally that I don’t like to look at them because you lose focus a little bit,” Chris Johnson said about the SEC standings. “The main focus is just going out on a consistent basis and being able to compete for 40 minutes on every possession. That’s been working for us, and we’re going to continue to do that.”


And in case anyone is wondering, LSU’s next opponent is only one game behind the Tigers in the Western Division.


If you didn’t know that then don’t feel bad because neither Mitchell nor Chris Johnson.

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