BATON ROUGE, La. – This year marks LSU guard Andre Stringer's last chance to play in the NCAA tournament. He also suspects it's his best chance, and he's not alone.
"There is more determination this year, especially from the guys coming back," Stringer, a fourth-year senior, said this week. "Everybody on this team is hungry. The older guys on the team want to do better. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA tournament. There is a sense of urgency."
LSU is in the midst of a four-year absence from the NCAA tournament, which began during the regime of Trent Johnson, who left in 2012 for TCU. This marks the second season for current coach Johnny Jones, a familiar name at LSU from his days as a top assistant under former longtime coach Dale Brown, and a Tigers player before that.
Under Brown, Jones built a strong reputation for recruiting, particularly in Louisiana, and is restoring that now.
There are four freshmen and a transfer who are expected to contribute right away, joining five returning players who averaged 18 minutes or more a season ago, when LSU went 19-12 overall and 9-9 in the Southeastern Conference.
Coaches around the SEC have taken notice of the Tigers' improved depth, picking them fourth of 14 teams in the league's preseason poll behind only Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee.
"I am not sure where I thought we would be picked. I thought somewhere in the middle," Jones said. "Everybody was able to see the way we finished last year ... but we have a lot of work to do."
Here are five things to know about the Tigers as their 2012-13 regular season opener approaches on No. 12 at Massachusetts:
JOHNNY ROUNDBALL: LSU's hopes will hinge in large part on Johnny O'Bryant III, who considered entering the past NBA draft before announcing that he'd stay with the Tigers another season. O'Bryant was a second-team All-SEC selection last season, when he averaged 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He also registered 15 double-doubles. How important is the 6-foot-9, 259-pound O'Bryant to the Tigers? When he informed Jones of his decision, the coach said he wanted to jump around his desk give O'Bryant "a bear hug."
FORMIDABLE FRESHMAN: LSU's highest-rated 2013 recruit was Baton Rouge native and McDonald's All-American Jerrell Martin. Listed at 6-9, 241 pounds, Martin has the size to play power forward, but also the versatility to play the swing position. Martin was Louisiana's 2013 Mr. Basketball, averaging 26.3 points, 14.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 4.1 blocked shot for Madison Prep High School, which won its first state Class B title last season.
DEEP ROTATION: Jones says he expects his regular playing rotation to be as deep as 10 or 11 players. For a number of players, it's still unclear how the minutes will sort out. O'Bryant, Stringer and point guard Anthony Hickey are the key returnees, along with forward Shavon Coleman and shooting guard Malik Morgan. There is no guarantee Hickey will remain a starter. He is being pushed by 6-6 freshman Tim Quarterman, who was Georgia's Class AAA player of the year. Two other freshmen, 6-8 forward Jordan Mickey of Texas and 7-foot center Dacy Malone of Australia, also are expected to play right away, as is transfer John Odo, a former junior college All-American.
PERIMETER QUESTIONS: One of LSU's weaknesses was perimeter shooting last season, and it's not yet clear how well that has been addressed. Stringer is the only returning player who was remotely consistent from 3-point range last season, hitting 40.9 percent. As a team, LSU shot 35.6 percent from long range last season, and has since lost two of its more accurate shooters from long range: Charles Carmouche and Corban Collins.
DEAF DOME: It has been years since the nickname "Deaf Dome" applied to LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center, but that hasn't stopped current players for getting acquainted with an environment they just might help recreate if they play well. Longtime college basketball announcer Dick Vitale gave the stadium the nickname, which seemed apt when Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Jackson were packing the house. Now their old game tape is serving as inspiration. "Something we want to do is win and create a hostile environment for our opponent," Stringer said. "We want to get it back like it used to be here. We watch tape all the time for how it used to be at the PMAC."