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October 28, 2013

March Madness goal for both LSU teams

It has been five seasons since both the LSU men and women basketball teams participated in the NCAA tournament at the same time.

In 2009, coach Trent Johnson's men's team won the Southeastern Conference title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament where it lost to eventual national champion North Carolina. Coach Van Chancellor's Lady Tigers didn't reach the Final Four, but did earn a NCAA bid.

Just three seasons ago, neither LSU basketball team was a part of March Madness. Two years later, both teams have new coaches - Johnny Jones for the men and Nikki Caldwell for the women. Being consistent participants in the NCAA tournament is the goal for both of these coaches.

In his first season as coach, Jones led the Tigers to 19 victories, but the season ended with a blowout loss to Florida in the SEC tournament. Meanwhile, Caldwell has guided the Lady Tigers to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament - reaching the second round and the Sweet 16.

Both coaches are looking forward to the upcoming campaign. With a good mix of returning players and talented newcomers, Jones is expecting the Tigers to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Jones will not specifically talk about being in the Big Dance.

"Any time you put a team together, these guys' desires will be about playing in the NCAA tournament," said Jones at LSU's basketball media day Monday. "It is not something discussed by me. Among themselves, I am sure it is something talked about.

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"They were close last year. They have shown the desire to be there and have shown the work effort. If hard work means anything, I like our chances."

Unlike Jones, Caldwell talks about reaching the NCAA tournament. Of course, that situation comes with the territory. Recall that the Lady Tigers made five consecutive Final Four appearances from 2004-08.

"You just have to love the struggle," Caldwell said. "You have to push the envelope. That's what I call 'sweat equity' comes in. If you go into a championship game and you know you outworked your opponent, that's an edge. You have to adapt that attitude to be a champion."

Jones will have a much deeper team this season. There are five returning players who started games last season - Anthony Hickey, Andre Stringer, Johnny O'Bryant, Malik Morgan and Shavon Coleman. Then, four newcomers will be in the rotation - John Odo, Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Tim Quarterman.

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"We are much farther along at this juncture than last season," Jones said. "One reason is we have enough guys back who can execute at a certain level. The veterans are doing a tremendous job showing leadership. The newcomers are doing a great job in following the leaders and competing for spots."

The Lady Tigers, who had a short bench a year ago, return four starters - Jeanne Kenney, Shanece McKinney, Danielle Ballard and Theresa Plaisance. Freshman Raigyne Moncrief will be the fifth starter. Freshmen Jasmine Rhodes and Rina Hill will provide depth.

"I see more of everything," Caldwell said. "We have more players, more scorers, more ball-handlers, more leadership, more competitive spirit. The improvement of this group from last year to this year is very good because how the players worked in the offseason. I see a more efficient basketball team."

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The men's team, which was picked to finish in the second division of the SEC last season, ended with a 9-9 league record - its best conference mark since 2009. The SEC coaches forecasted the Tigers to finish fourth this season - behind Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee.

"Last year, we were picked really low," Jones said. "The players knew how hard they had to work. It's different this year. We've been picked higher. But, our mentality can't change. We have to keep the same approach as last year. Improve each practice and each game. Don't look ahead."



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