This is what LJ Figueroa imagined. This is how he hoped his senior season would go.
A true March Madness experience. A trip to the Sweet 16. An opportunity to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
This is why he transferred to Oregon.
“I think we have a good shot at getting to the Final Four,” the former St. John’s star told The Post from Indianapolis, as No. 7 Oregon prepared to meet No. 6 USC on Sunday in a West Region semifinal. “It’s just amazing to be a part of it and to see my game grow.”
It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Figueroa. The 6-foot-6 wing from Lawrence, Mass., missed the first game of the season, as he was awaiting his eligibility waiver. He then was infected with COVID-19, dealt with mild symptoms and missed nearly all of January. He started slowly, hitting just two of his first 18 3-point attempts. All of this while adjusting to a new system with new coaches and new teammates.
“Not seeing the ball go in was very frustrating,” he said.
Scoring, however, has taken a back seat for Figueroa, who is averaging a career-low in points (12.6) and shot attempts (10.5), but leading Oregon in rebounding (6.2) and shooting a career-best 39 percent from deep. Surrounded by so much talent, he accepted that would be the case early on. He attempted three shots in his first game. Three shots in his third game. And eight shots in his fifth game.
In that first game, a win over Seton Hall, Figueroa was proud of how he played, because he had nine rebounds and three steals, and provided a jolt of energy off the bench for his teammates.
“A lot of people think my game is score, score, score, but that game was one of my best games,” Figueroa said. “I wanted to really show what my game is about.”
It endeared him to coaches and teammates, but Oregon wanted Figueroa to score, too. It didn’t want him passing up shots. It didn’t recruit him to just be a defensive specialist at the top of its press. He took it upon himself to take on a secondary role.
“He said he wanted to win, and a lot of guys say the right things, but when they get [on campus], something a little bit different [happens],” Oregon assistant coach Tony Stubblefield told The Post.
Figueroa meant it. He was willing to sacrifice, be an anchor for the team, a glue guy. But the Ducks wanted more out of him. They needed it. After a few talks, it got through.
“He kept telling me, ‘Coach, don’t worry. If I’m open, I’m going to shoot,’ ” Stubblefield said.
Much like his first season at St. John’s, as the year has gone, Figueroa has become a bigger part of the offense. He’s reached double figures in each of his last 10 games, averaging 16 points, 5.4 rebounds and two steals during that stretch in which the Ducks have gone 8-2. In the biggest game of the year, the second-round upset of No. 2 Iowa, Figueroa enjoyed arguably his best performance.
He scored a season-high 21 points, hit five 3-pointers, added seven rebounds and three steals. He helped break open the game, scoring nine points in a momentum-turning 18-4 run to close out the first half.
“That helped us tremendously because now it gives you another threat out there from a standpoint of a guy who can make a shot,” Stubblefield said. “It helps other guys in terms of opening up the floor.”
Figueroa said he remains close with several of his former St. John’s teammates. He spoke with Mustapha Heron for a few hours the other day, getting a feel for what it’s like to play overseas, joking that he was basically interviewing Heron about what his future may look like.
He watched as many St. John’s games as he could this year, and was impressed with how well Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander, the Big East Freshman and co-Defensive Player of the year, performed. There were times he wondered what the Johnnies would’ve been like had he stayed.
But Figueroa felt it was time to move on. He didn’t like how he played last season. His game didn’t flow. He was taking too many shots. He needed a change.
“I just wanted to make sure I put myself in the best position possible to excel,” he said.
Oregon made the most sense. It recruited him out of junior college and has had plenty of success with transfers. It frequently went deep into the tournament, which is what he wanted the most out of his senior season.
He helped Oregon win the Pac-12 regular-season title and keyed its rout of Iowa. Now comes No. 6 USC then possibly the best team in the country, top-seeded Gonzaga, in the Elite Eight.
“Being able to play in the Sweet 16 is just amazing,” Figueroa said. “I know I can go back home, tell my people [about it], my future kids, I can tell them, ‘Your dad played in the Sweet 16.’ ”