BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — LSU coach Johnny Jones isn't quite ready to guarantee greatness for the Tigers.
Talented as they appear, there are too many unproven players in key roles for that.
"It's still a learning time and a learning phase for our basketball team," Jones said. "We'll go through some growing pains."
Jones, a former LSU player and assistant, is entering the third season of what he considers his dream job, and is hoping his team comes together quickly enough to end a six-year NCAA tournament drought.
One of LSU's top returning players, 6-foot-8 forward Jordan Mickey, doesn't hide his optimism regarding the squad Jones has assembled.
"We have the makings to be a great team," Mickey said. "We have all the pieces we need."
Mickey is not alone in his optimism. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference in the league's preseason poll.
The Tigers won 20 games last season, which was good enough for an NIT invitation.
Here are some other things to know about this season's revamped LSU squad, which opens play against Morehouse on Nov. 7:
NEW GUARDS: Gray, who'll man the point, and Hornsby, a 6-4 shooting guard, are new to LSU but not inexperienced. The 6-1 Gray is a junior college transfer from Odessa, where he averaged 34.7 points per game. "He's a different athlete than what we had on the team last year," Mickey said. "He's a bigger guy, a bigger defender. ... He's able to finish over big guys and be able to rise up and shoot the ball well." Hornsby sat out last season after transferring from UNC-Asheville, where two seasons ago he averaged 15 points and four rebounds. He said he and Gray have been developing good chemistry in practice. "Since we have been playing together, we have seen signs of brilliance," Hornsby said. "I can't wait for everyone else to see it too."
YOUNG LEADERS: LSU's only two returning players who had significant roles last season are Mickey and Martin, both true sophomores who said they understood they'd have to take on greater roles off the court this season. "Mickey and I are taking on more of a leadership role," Martin said. "We went into the preseason working hard, getting our teammates more involved and teaching them the right things because we are veterans now. We definitely try to make each other and everyone better."
MOTIVATED MARTIN: Martin averaged 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in his first season at LSU, when he was named to the SEC all-freshman team, and did so despite dealing with nagging injuries and switching back and forth between the wing and power-forward. This season, Martin is about 15 pounds lighter, making him more explosive, Jones said. "He worked really hard during the offseason," Jones added. "We're looking for some big things from him."
AT THE LINE: LSU shot only 67 percent from the free-throw line last season, but Jones expects that to improve this season. "I hope that I recruited some free-throw shooters," Jones said, noting that he recently watched Hornsby hit 50 of 53 and Gray hit 50 of 54 during a foul-shooting drill. "That's a big plus for you when you have good free throw shooters."
MIDDLE MAN: Jones is hoping Robinson can catch on quick in his transition from high school to a starting center spot in the physical SEC. Last season, Robinson averaged 12 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks as a high school senior in Garland, Texas. "With Elbert being a freshman, certainly the speed of the game and those things, he'll have to continue to grow," Jones said.