BATON ROUGE, La. — As the saying goes, to the victor go the spoils. Well, the LSU basketball team is about to learn what happens when you lose the Victor.
Last week, just hours before LSU basketball’s SEC opener versus Vanderbilt, LSU dismissed forward Craig Victor from the team because of a violation of team rules. Without Victor, who averaged 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in five starts this year, LSU lost at home to Vanderbilt, dropping to 8-4 this season.
There’s no coming back. Victor is off the team. LSU is a new team, and probably a worse team, without its best rebounder and most vocal leader. But the season isn’t lost.
“Obviously we’ve got to adjust to the way that we’re going to play,” LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones said. “You have to look at it as though the guys getting in foul trouble and getting injuries, those things happen, and you hope that your team is built to sustain those type things. Our team is built that way, and we’ve got to make sure that we move on and other guys will get responsibilities that they’ll have to work through.”
Working through those responsibilities won’t be so easy, though. Victor was LSU’s most effective rebounder and got to the free-throw line more frequently than any of his teammates, combining to make Victor LSU’s most important low-post presence. His replacements, junior Aaron Epps and freshman Wayde Sims, just don’t fit that same profile.
Epps is lankier than burly. Where Victor measured in at 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, Epps said he’s closer to 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds, taking away a significant amount of girth in the frontcourt. And Sims might have the weight — he’s 222 pounds — but he’s only listed at 6-foot-6, just one inch taller than guard Brandon Sampson.
But Epps said he doesn’t think it’s constructive for either him or Sims to try to be Victor. They know that their strengths don’t align with Victor’s. What they have to do is lean into their strengths, not try to learn his.
“I have to be confident out there,” Epps said. “There are things that I’m good at that Craig’s not as good at, and there’s things that Craig’s good at that I’m not as good at. I just have to be confident in what I’m doing by practicing hard every day. Just putting in all the different reps and working hard.”
Epps describes himself as an inside-out forward, a lot like center Duop Reath. He said that the two of them will complement each other well on the post because their games are so similar being that both like the play inside but are capable of stretching to the corners and the top of the key and putting up jumpers when the occasion calls.
And Sims? Sims isn’t so much an inside-out forward as he is an outside-in. The freshman made four consecutive 3-pointers against Vanderbilt last week, catalyzing a near comeback almost entirely by himself.
To point guard Skylar Mays, an old high school teammate of Sims, this is nothing new.
“The ref had to stop me when he made that fourth,” Mays said. “I was about to run out there and tackle him because I was so excited. Yeah, but that’s Wayde’s game. He’s capable of scoring. He’s just got a knack for scoring. I’ve seen it since high school. I’ve seen it first-hand.
Still, losing Victor is just one of many issues LSU has to work on. Victor might’ve been LSU’s best interior defender, but Vanderbilt beat LSU by making 16 3-pointers, something Victor would’ve had very little bearing on.
A lot of that has to do with communication. The LSU basketball team needs to get better at talking to one another on defense, something that was a specialty of Victor’s.
But the good news is just as the team lost one talker, it gained another. Fresh off an injury, junior college transfer Branden Jenkins made his LSU debut against Vanderbilt, logging almost an entire half of action as one of the Tigers’ reserve point guards.
As Mays explained, Jenkins is an ace communicator, and a quality defender too. And, possibly to make up for Victor’s absence, LSU went small on a couple of occasions, including one set where Mays, Jenkins and fellow point guard Jalyn Patterson were all on the court at the same time.
“I love playing like that,” Mays said. “Everyone is moving the ball. We’re looking to make the right play. [Antonio Blakeney] and [Sampson] are more than capable of making the right play, but you just love having guys who are looking to distribute.”
So maybe, the secret to replacing Victor isn’t going to be in replicating his rebounds or drawing fouls like he can. Maybe the secret to LSU’s success this year will be in reinvention.
If this has to be the team that relies on two inside-out forwards, a 6-foot-6 forward who likes to shoot from deep and three point guards to do one man’s job, so be it. And if that works, even better.
But if it doesn’t work? Well, LSU sure won’t be getting any of those spoils.