BATON ROUGE, La. — Go ahead and file Antonio Blakeney’s solution for the LSU men’s basketball team’s struggles under the tab labeled “easier said than done.”
“Last year wasn’t all negative,” Blakeney said of LSU’s 2015-16 campaign. “The thing is just to add on to it. We lacked on defense last year. So some of the things we did were good last year, some of the things were bad. This year we just want to add some of the defensive part and keep the offensive part with it.”
For a team that has to replace the man who was selected No. 1 overall in this summer’s NBA Draft, lost more starters than it retained and still only won 19 games last season, maintaining an identity is hard enough. Forging an entirely new one is practically impossible. But Blakeney and his teammates, led by fifth-year head coach Johnny Jones, are saying all the right things that lead you to think that maybe, just maybe, it might be possible after all.
Through one week of full squad practices, the main focus of Jones and his staff has been shoring up their team’s defense, a phase of the game that LSU certainly did not excel in last season. Out of 351 teams in Division I, LSU ranked 292nd in the country in points allowed per game, with its opponents averaging 77.1 points per game. Per 100 possessions, LSU’s opponents averaged 104.9 points, the 229th best mark in Division I.
Blakeney said that the main difference between how the team has approached defense this season compared to last has been an increase in attention to detail. Instead of focusing on the macro issue of keeping your opponent in front of you, the focus has been on granular issues such as knowing when to help your teammate with a double team or successfully boxing out for a rebound.
Junior college transfer Branden Jenkins explained that this granularity has manifested itself in players being louder on the court.
“This year, we’re just focused on being more vocal,” Jenkins said. “I think being more vocal leads to championships. Communication, be more energetic, and you have to trust your brother. Knowing if he’s on the weak side, you’ve got to tell him to be over there and know that he’s got your back. So being more vocal and talking helps that.”
That said, volume alone can’t fix a team’s defensive woes. At some point, either a team’s existing players need to get better or the team needs to find new players. And while Blakeney and the core of LSU’s returning reserves are working at improving their defensive games, an infusion of defense-first players both new and experienced is helping to turn the team around.
Jenkins, for example, describes himself as a “defensive-minded” point guard, a term that at first glance sounds as oxymoronic as “blocking receiver” or “hitting pitcher.” But that’s the role that Jones brought Jenkins to Baton Rouge to play. Same goes for LSU’s other junior college transfer, 6-foot-10 forward Duop Reath.
In his press conference Wednesday, Jones volunteered, independent of being asked, that Reath has been the biggest surprise for the team this season, especially thanks to his willingness to play aggressive, energetic defense in the low post. While Reath describes himself as a “stretch four,” a position known more for showcasing length on the perimeter, he also said he enjoys nothing more than cleaning up behind other people’s misses.
“I take pride in defense. That’s the only way you can win games,” Reath said. “Me being a big guy inside, I’ve got to protect the rim. I’ve got to do my job.”
That thought, the concept of taking pride in doing what’s being asked of you, has permeated across the team as a whole. The team’s hive mind is focused on doing its job, and its job right now is improving on the defensive end.
Because that, to Jones, is how this team will win games.
“You can’t be selfish on the defensive end of the floor,” Jones said. “You have to play as a team. And that’s a commitment that we have to make as as group. Along with commitment and the right chemistry, I think we can be a better defensive basketball team.”