Last year Trent Johnson led the LSU basketball team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
At Wednesday’s basketball Media Day, Johnson made it clear that his team is leaving the past behind them.
Johnson, in his second season as the Tiger head coach, has the task of rebuilding a program that lost six scholarship players, five seniors, from a team finished 27-8 and won a Southeastern Conference title.
“I am really, really excited about the upcoming year,” said Johnson in his opening remarks. “We had a successful season last year, but lost some quality guys. On paper, are we as skilled and experienced as teams we play? I don’t know; but we don’t play games on paper.”
One strong suit of the team will be Tasmin Mitchell, who returned for his senior season after flirting with professional ball.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Mitchell returns after a first-team All-SEC performance at the four spot. With the move of Mitchell to small forward, Johnson said that the senior’s mid-range game has made significant strides – thanks in large part to Mitchell’s offseason spent workout for the NBA draft.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to play against good players in an NBA situation, that will make you better,” Johnson said. “He is shooting the ball from the perimeter better.
“He is stronger, believe it or not,” he added. “So [Mitchell] is a guy that we go to inside or outside. We will move him around, and he is a tough match up for a lot of people.”
The other returning starter is Bo Spencer, who will handle the point guard duties once more. Unfortunately for the junior, an offseason spent nursing a wrist injury has left him behind the eight ball.
“Bo has not had a productive spring or summer as he would like, and a lot of that has to do with his wrist,” he said. “And then he got out of his cast, and he was on track to be 75-percent, and he had a fall.”
When Spencer worked out this week, Johnson said he did so with no restricted movement. Garrett Green, who has battled lower back problems for over a year, also worked out at full speed. With Aaron Dotson’s recovery from knee surgery on pace, it appears that the Tigers could be to full strength by the season opener next month.
The question remains, what players will fill the void left by players lost?
“I have a pretty good feeling now of the makeup of our team,” Johnson said. “The question is who do we go to offensively when Tas and Bo are taken away? Who is the guy to step up and make shots, or who can step up and make a defensive play?”
Sophomore Chris Bass will share time with Spencer at point guard, while the second guard spot remains open. Johnson said fifth-year senior Alex Farrar would get the reigns first, trailed by the freshman Dotson.
“Alex knows what’s going on, he is a very bright kid,” he said. “My expectations for Alex are higher than he had for himself. He is welcoming that challenge.
“We will run a lot of similar stuff that we ran with the wings last year, but he is a catch and shoot guy,” he added. “We are not going to ask him to put it on the floor.”
Mitchell has the three locked up, which leaves two spots open in the post. One of those, it seems, belongs to Storm Warren.
“Storm is maximum effort, rebound and defend,” Johnson said. “He might be undersized as far as length, but he is strong.”
Green, if he can remain healthy, will battle out redshirt freshman Dennis Harris for the final post spot. Though the upside on Harris appears high, Johnson said that he remains a question mark until the season gets under way.
“Dennis has a good skill set, but until he goes up against someone in a competitive situation, there is a lot of unknowns there,” he said. “He is a guy who shows glimpses, he can shoot the ball from midrange but won’t work with his back to the basket.
“But the jury is out until he competes against someone. There are times where he looks good and has his chance, and then times where he forgets the call.”
For freshmen like Eddie Ludwig and Dotson, growth will be determined by how quickly they can adjust to the physicality of the league.
“I don’t like, I love them both,” Johnson said. “Both have bright futures with LSU basketball.
“But until they figure out how violent this game is, it will be tough.”
Looking at the schedule ahead, Johnson said he has tempered his expectations until the team can line up against five guys that are not his own – especially given the task at hand.
“The league was young last year, and now it is extremely experienced and talented,” he said. “For us, we have to worry about ourselves and competing at a high level.
“Utah will give us a good measuring stick. Washington State is a great measuring stick, and obviously Xavier. It will tell us where we’re at.”