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LSU might not even be worthy of an NIT bid

March 12, 2016 Columns No Comments

“So as a season, we’ve had some great ups, but I think anytime you end the way we did today, you’re very disappointed.”

Those were the closing words of LSU head coach Johnny Jones in the press conference after Texas A&M annihilated the Tigers 71-38 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. As you might expect, there was a bit of understatement there.

Indeed, LSU has a little to be disappointed about. And Jones is undoubtedly feeling that more than anyone else. But let’s be clear: Saturday’s blowout is just the latest part of it, and perhaps the most salient. It should also make the case that the Tigers might not even belong in the NIT (it is a foregone conclusion that they have no business being in the NCAA Tournament).

So much was expected of the Tigers this season, and there was one primary reason for that – the presence of Ben Simmons. Getting Antonio Blakeney, who was a travel teammate of Simmons and also a big-time prospect out of high school in his own right, certainly helped, as did Brandon Sampson. But it was Simmons who brought this team instant relevance, and might have helped them land Blakeney as well.

They had other pieces as well, from NBA prospect Tim Quarterman to shooter Keith Hornsby, so this was not a one- or two-man show. Arizona transfer Craig Victor, eligible in December, also has talent. So when you see this team go 19-14, including a 7-6 mark against a soft non-conference schedule, there’s reason to be disappointed.

It’s all a big reminder that “potential” is a loaded word in athletics, and that sometimes we expect more than might be warranted.

Let’s acknowledge that LSU didn’t have this entire team all season as well, and that didn’t help. Hornsby missed 13 games due to injury, Victor wasn’t eligible until eight games in, and only three players got into all 33 games. Still, against the schedule they played and in an SEC that isn’t exactly overflowing with powerhouses, the Tigers should have been better.

LSU struggled defensively, allowing opponents to shoot over 45 percent on the season, which was dead last in the SEC, and allowed opponents to shoot over 35 percent from deep. The Tigers were also out-rebounded, minimizing their possession advantage from forcing nearly 14 turnovers per game. Those numbers got worse in SEC play, as opponents shot 47 percent from the field against them. They weren’t perfect offensively, either, shooting below 33 percent from long range. Hornsby’s injuries didn’t help, as he shot over 41 percent from behind the arc and was the only real threat from there. Blakeney shot 33.5 percent from deep.

Reports of bad chemistry came late in the season, a sign that not all was well with the team. That also makes Saturday’s showing less surprising, and also brings attention back to Jones. One wonders if his seat hasn’t gotten hot, months after it looked like that was unthinkable. Getting a player like Simmons usually helps a coach, but this end result, not so much.

Jones has won 80 games in four years as head coach at the school, winning at least 19 games each year. The Tigers have won 11 SEC games each of the past two seasons after winning nine in each of his first two. Last season will go down as the only NCAA Tournament appearance in this stretch. There has been basically no talk of him losing his job, but you wonder if this makes his seat a bit hotter entering next season.

LSU certainly did have some big moments. They had enough to be a tease, but not enough to be an NCAA Tournament, or even NIT, team. They beat Kentucky in January and Texas A&M in February, although both came at home. However, they didn’t have enough of them, especially with lows like going 0-for-2 in Brooklyn in the Legends Classic (including an overtime loss to NC State), losses at College of Charleston and Houston, as well as a home loss to Wake Forest and double-digit losses at Tennessee and Arkansas. Then there was the thud that their SEC Tournament run ended with on Saturday.

That would form much of the disappointment Jones talked about.

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