BATON ROUGE, La. — When confronted with the harsh reality that the perception of them is that they stink, LSU basketball players reacted by plainly disagreeing.
“That just makes us work even harder,” junior forward Aaron Epps said Tuesday. “Last year around this time we were picked a lot higher. This year, people are kind of overlooking us. We just have that chip on our shoulders.”
The chip on Epps’s shoulders comes from LSU’s 200 percent drop in ranking on the SEC’s preseason poll, voted on last week at the SEC basketball media days. Before the 2015-16 season, LSU was picked to finish fourth in the conference. That prediction came true, as the Tigers were the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament last year.
But this year? This year the media picked the Tigers to finish 12th in the conference, ahead of just Tennessee and Missouri — two teams that combined to win just nine conference games last season.
LSU head coach Johnny Jones understands why the perception around his team has changed so drastically. He just doesn’t agree.
“I think I shared with [the players] prior to leaving for media day what they would possibly be projected and how they would be perceived because of what we lost last year and only returning two starters from last year’s team and the bulk of the scoring and rebounding that we lost,” Jones said. “That would be the perception.”
What Jones and his players are artfully trying not to say is the name “Ben Simmons.” The man who went on to be the No. 1 pick in last summer’s NBA Draft was LSU’s leader in points, minutes, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and attention. Without him, this team is perceived as a shell of what it once was, and what it once was wasn’t even good enough to make the NCAA tournament.
Sure, sophomore guard Antonio Blakeney was selected as a member of the SEC’s preseason all-second team. And the Tigers are returning some talented spot shooters, Blakeney included. But without Simmons at the nucleus, this team just isn’t up to muster, at least not in the eyes of the media-day voters.
As Jones said Tuesday, this isn’t the sort of issue that can be solved with words. The only way to prove the voters wrong is with actions, which LSU started putting the work in to do as soon as the vote came in.
“When it came out it resonated and hit home with them and we were able to address that when we returned,” Jones said. “It affected Antonio and [Brandon Sampson] who were both at media days along with other players from other programs. Those guys know who’s recruited and who’s returning from other teams and the try to measure themselves against that. It was a very spirited practice that next day.”