The season opener is only three days away for Trent Johnson and the LSU men’s basketball team and after a little less than a month of battling one another in practice the Tigers are ready for their first test on Friday against UL-Monroe.
Injuries have played havoc on Johnson’s squad which was already short on bodies with only nine scholarship players available for the 2009-10 campaign. That number was recently cut to eight as senior guard Alex Farrer has suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for at least six weeks according to Johnson.
“Alex Farrer dislocated his kneecap. That’s the preliminary read,” Johnson said. “The best case scenario from what I understand talking to our medical people is six weeks. The ball was on the other side of the floor, the guy Alex was guarding just made a simple cut to the baseline, Alex turned and it was just one of those freak things. Obviously, I feel for him being a fifth-year guy, a senior.
Farrer, a 6-5, 200-pound guard, played in 32 games last season and averaged 1.7 points a game. As a sophomore, he saw much more action and started 14 of the 27 games he played in and averaged three points a game. He scored in double figures twice that year with a career-best 11 points against Arkansas and 10 points against South Carolina.
“The way he had been shooting the ball periodically he was starting to come around,” Johnson said of Farrer. “What we’re going to miss is his experience. He also has a high basketball IQ.”
In addition to the loss of Farrer, Bo Spencer had off-season surgery and Garrett Green and Aaron Dotson are recovering from injuries as well. Green missed all of last season with a back injury and Dotson played only a couple of games during his senior year before having surgery on his knee.
Dotson’s knee is still not 100 percent but with Farrer’s injury he can expect to see more playing time.
“Aaron Dotson was afforded the luxury of getting to come along at a slower pace, but we’re going to have to speed that up,” stated Johnson. “When you recruit kids, they all like to be in situations where they have an opportunity to play. Now there’s going to be more opportunities for more guys to play more minutes.”
Another change that Johnson will have to make is putting his two point guards – Chris Bass and Spencer – on the floor at the same time with Spencer moving over to the two-guard spot on occasion.
“The only real difference is that I’ll have to use Chris (Bass) and Bo (Spencer) together at times, more so than I would have liked this early because of the inexperience factor,” explained Johnson. “We’ll get a really good look at that on Friday because Monroe comes with multiple types of pressure. We’re going to have to adjust a little bit more because Alex was a guy that made really good decisions.”
The first challenge for LSU will be a Warhawk squad that returns all five starters from last year’s group that finished 10-20 overall and 6-12 in Sun Belt Conference play. Heck, the Warhawks even return their sixth-man in 6-2, 170-pound guard Dynile Forbes.
There’s a lot of experience returning for ULM fourth-year head coach Orlando Early and Johnson should learn more about his team on Friday.
“This basketball team will have to play well and extremely hard,” said LSU’s headman. “There are a lot of guys on this team that haven’t played a lot, but we have a ways to go, and I think we understand that.
“My concern is always that we can do three phases that keep you in games and go from there, which are defend, rebound and take care of it. We have great shots, but defensively in transition we’re not as good as we need to be at this point in the year. We’re working hard, but it has to be accelerated. There’s not a sense of panic here, though.”
Malcolm Thomas, a 6-6, 185-pound wing player, led ULM with 46 three-pointers last year and also was tops in scoring at 12.3 points a game. Forbes was next at 11 points a game followed by 6-7, 210-pound Lawrence Gilbert at 10.9 points a game. Gilbert also was the most consistent threat from downtown knocking down 45.8 percent of his treys on 44 of 96 shooting.
The Tigers return only two starters from a year ago in Spencer and Tasmin Mitchell which means that three new starters will have to be broken in by Johnson and his staff. That makes the loss of Farrer even that much worse for the defending SEC regular season champs.
Still, the excitement is in the air as the Tigers prepare for the new campaign.
“Everyone’s getting really anxious,” said Spencer. “We can’t be too anxious though. We have to go out there and play the game like we’ve been coached. We’re looking forward to going out and playing smart and playing good defense, and hopefully come out with a victory.”
Getting a victory is important for the Tigers and Mitchell feels that they will take a step towards answering some of the pre-season questions surrounding this team.
“We just have to go in and take what they give us,” said Mitchell. “The first game always tells you how you’re going to be in the future. There are a lot of unknowns right now. We have to just come out and capitalize.”
Before Johnson ended his media session on Tuesday he announced that he was personally going to cover the ticket cost for 250 LSU students for each of the two nights of Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off play at the Maravich Assembly Center, Nov. 16 and 17.
“I see where LSU is paying for the first 250 (student) tickets for the NIT,” he said. “How about Coach J pays for the next 250 students? That would be a pretty good deal, huh? I think I want to pay for the next 250.”
The LSU Athletic Department announced earlier on Tuesday that it would pick up the tab for 250 tickets so that pushes the free ticket allotment up to 500 for LSU students.
On Nov. 16, the free tickets will be given out beginning at 5:30 p.m. until supplies run out and on Nov.17 the start time of distribution will be either 3:30 or 5:30 p.m., depending on which game LSU plays. After the 500 tickets are issued, any other students in line or wishing to attend the game must pay the $4 entrance fee.