Johnny Jones has faced his fair share of criticism in the last four months.
The LSU men’s basketball coach’s second year at the helm was largely viewed as a disappointment. Armed with a top 10 recruiting class and a solid group of upperclassmen led by NBA draft pick Johnny O’Bryant III, the Tigers looked poised to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
LSU instead trudged to a 9-9 Southeastern Conference record, struggled to win on the road and showed lapses of effort and offensive continuity. The Tigers’ upset of eventual national runner-up Kentucky helped them earn a National Invitation Tournament berth, yet most fans still labeled LSU as underachievers.
Jones naturally shouldered much of the blame for what went wrong during the season, but he should be commended for everything he’s done since.
What Jones lacks designing half-court sets, he makes up for in recruiting. Jones couldn’t bring in this year’s crop of talented players without clearing some roster space, and he did just that last month when he announced Anthony Hickey, Malik Morgan and Shane Hammink would not be returning to the team.
Parting ways with each of those players had to be a tough call for Jones – Hickey started 85 games over the last three seasons, Morgan was LSU’s only non-walk-on player from the New Orleans area and Hammink’s father played for Jones when he was an assistant coach at LSU.
Jones was wise enough to not let any personal or recruiting considerations prevent him from taking the Tigers in the right direction. Dumping Morgan may temporarily burn a recruiting bridge in New Orleans, but in-state talent will flock to LSU if it’s a consistent tournament contender.
The Tigers are improving their talent with this year’s recruiting class, so losing Hammink and Morgan won’t be detrimental in terms of winning games. Hammink averaged less than six minutes per game last season, and Morgan would not even be able to play in 2014 because of a knee injury he suffered in February.
Hickey is a different story. Despite playing a key role for the Tigers since his freshman year, Hickey never seemed to click with Jones, who doled out multiple suspensions to the point guard.
Not only did Jones remove another possible distraction by dismissing Hickey, he sent away the last of former coach Trent Johnson’s players. Now that the Tigers are exclusively Jones’ recruits, all that’s left is for them to gel and develop.
Enter assistant coach Eric Musselman, who Jones brought in on June 17 after Korey McCray departed to pursue other coaching opportunities.
Musselman spent three years as an NBA coach and boasts a proven track record of developing players in the NBA D-League. He earned Coach of the Year recognition with the Los Angeles D-Fenders in 2012, and eight of his players were eventually called up to the NBA.
With critics claiming O’Bryant never reached his full potential and former five-star forward Jarell Martin didn’t adjust to the college level fast enough, Musselman is exactly the kind of developmental guru Jones needs to turn his prized recruits into All-Americans.
Jones made another valuable staff decision last week when he promoted David Patrick to assistant head coach, which came with a one-year contract extension. Patrick, who also has a friendship with Musselman dating back to 2006, said the job stability will allow him to “build this thing together” with Jones.
That sense of unity and contentment within the coaching staff should translate onto the court, where LSU often looked out of sync last season.
Jones can fully dictate the culture of his program now that he’s assembled players and coaches of his choosing. LSU disappointed last season, but Jones has been working to ensure that won’t be the case next time around.
Marcus Rodrigue is a 21-year-old mass communication senior from Thibodaux, La.