The special of the day at Thursday’s LSU men’s basketball media availability was denial, with a side of mounting frustration.
To a man, coach Johnny Jones and his players denied that the team had quit during yet another dismal defeat, a crushing 92-62 rout Wednesday night at Texas A&M. Their humiliation’s only redeeming factor seemed to be that it wasn’t as bad as the Tigers’ 71-38 loss to the Aggies in last year’s SEC tournament, when LSU still had Ben Simmons, an All-American and eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick.
“No, absolutely not,” Jones said when asked whether his team had thrown in the mental towel on this game and perhaps the season. “You know quit when you see it in guys' eyes or how they are feeling after the game. Watching these guys after the game … the emotion that they go through and their feelings, that's not it. If you quit, you don't care, and I think these guys care about what they’re doing. I think they’re just like everybody else, a fan or a coach — we’re all hurting, and we want to get better.”
That Simmons is gone doesn’t help, but it’s cold comfort to LSU’s coach and players when you’re having to answer justifiable questions about your team’s heart and effort. The Tigers have now lost three times this season by 30 points or more and have surrendered 92 points or more in four of their past five games. LSU’s only win was an 88-77 decision at Missouri, arguably the SEC’s worst team.
If the Tigers (9-6, 1-3) haven’t quit, they are quite obviously lost — lost on the relatively tranquil seas of a conference that once again doesn’t look like it’s going to send more than a handful of teams to the NCAA tournament.
It’s time to organize a search party on LSU’s behalf but, frankly, hope of finding a viable team is fading fast.
The frustration bubbling out of Antonio Blakeney, the Tigers’ sophomore shooting guard and best player, was hot enough to be measured in BTUs. He laid the blame for LSU’s woes first with its offense, not its defense.
“Our offense had to get better,” said Blakeney, LSU’s only double-figures scorer Wednesday with 17 points along with a team-high seven rebounds. “Our offense is bad. It’s too easy to guard us. And as bad as our offense is, it makes our defense worse. We’re not putting pressure on their defense, so they’re fresher on offense. We’re not competing.
“We only scored 62 points. Twelve of those were when they put in the weaker players. So we scored 50 points on them. Even if we did play a good defensive game, we’ve got to hold them to 48 (to win). So offense is the problem.”
Defense isn’t helping. The Tigers surrendered a combined 64 points at the free-throw line and in the paint, many of them on flying dunks and lightly contested layups. Forward Duop Reath said LSU’s transition defense was horrible, an assertion guard Jalyn Patterson didn't contest — a metaphor for all of those A&M dunks and easy layups.
The question: What to do about it? Jones has juggled five lineups in 15 games, going from big to smaller and quicker with no effect.
Clearly this team would be better if it still had recently dismissed forward Craig Victor’s muscle and toughness inside. And, yes, his absence once again makes this a young and in many ways inexperienced team.
Those are facts. But people eventually tire of facts when the results are lacking. They demand better results, either from the people in place or from new people.
LSU as a program has clearly regressed since late last season. The Tigers lost 71-57 at No. 10 Texas A&M last year. These Aggies aren’t those Aggies, but these Tigers are playing lamentable basketball these days.
Ultimately, the responsibility lies with Jones, who in his fifth year still boasts a winning record at LSU overall (89-57) and in conference (41-35), even if neither of those numbers are eye-popping. The Tigers did average 20 wins per year in Jones’ first four seasons, maxing out at 22 in 2014-15, but 20 wins isn’t the magic number it used to be. In that time, LSU has one NIT appearance and one NCAA tournament appearance and turned down a certain NIT invitation last season. And this team shows no signs of even being worthy of turning down the NIT come March.
One of the most telling things Blakeney said was in what he didn’t say. Asked whether the Tigers need to make more X’s and O’s changes, he declined to comment, sounding very much like someone with little faith in LSU’s X’s and O’s.
“There’s no X’s and O’s for competitiveness,” he said. “We have to just get that competitive edge.”
If the Tigers can’t do that, starting at home Saturday against Alabama, a search party for LSU’s lost season is likely to turn into a coaching search committee.