When it comes to her LSU Lady Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes, Nikki Caldwell doesn’t allow a negative thought to enter her mind.
Though the Lady Tigers are only 17-13, with a shaky No. 58 RPI, Caldwell is confident she and her team will see “LSU” pop up on the TV screen shortly after 6 p.m. Monday when the NCAA field of 64 is announced on ESPN.
“I look at our team and feel that we’ve done everything we can to have our name called,” Caldwell said. “I’m not second guessing our body of work. We’ve shown we’re worthy.”
Two big reasons for Caldwell’s confidence: LSU’s finish in the Southeastern Conference and the return of guard Danielle Ballard.
Despite a middling overall record because of a 6-6 nonconference record, the Lady Tigers went 10-6 in the highly regarded SEC to earn a No. 4 seed in last week’s SEC tournament. Four of those losses were to regular season co-champions South Carolina and Tennessee, both of whom could well earn No. 1 regional seeds Monday night.
“The SEC is one of the toughest conferences you can play in,” Caldwell said. “It’s full of future professionals and Olympians. Ten wins in the SEC is like going undefeated in other conferences.”
Ballard returned after a 14-game suspension, her half season of work good enough to earn All-SEC first-team honors as she averaged a team-best 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Asked if the selection committee will recognize how much better LSU was with Ballard the second half of the season, Caldwell said: “Without question. She has a proven track record as one of the best guards in the country.”
Few were better than Ballard in last year’s NCAA tournament. She averaged 23.3 points and 14.0 rebounds in three games as she willed the Lady Tigers through key injuries to fellow guards Jeanne Kenney and Raigyne Moncrief to LSU’s 14th NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.
Though Caldwell is displaying an outward bravado, perhaps in a nod to the nervousness surrounding LSU’s NCAA hopes this year, the team will hold a private viewing party at Caldwell’s house. In recent years, LSU held a watch party on campus with fans and media in attendance.
Unlike the past three years when LSU hosted first- and second-round games at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Lady Tigers are almost certain to be heading on the road to open the tournament for the first time since 2010.
Going into this year’s tournament, the NCAA changed the hosting procedures from pre-determined first- and second-round sites to having the top four seeds in each regional serve as hosts barring scheduling conflicts on their home courts.
As of Sunday, ESPN women’s basketball analyst Charlie Crème projected LSU as a No. 10 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, opening the tournament on Baylor’s home court in Waco, Texas, against No. 7 Northwestern.
LSU is seeking its 24th NCAA tournament appearance overall. The Lady Tigers are 43-23 in the tournament with five trips to the Final Four, which this year returns to Tampa, Florida, site of LSU’s last Final Four appearance in 2008.
LSU WOMEN’S RÉSUMÉ
The nuts and bolts
NCAA RPI: 58
TOP 100 WINS: 6
Kentucky (8), at Mississippi State (29), at Texas A&M (32), Texas A&M* (32), Georgia (59), Vanderbilt (62)
TOP 100 LOSSES: 10
At Tennessee (2), South Carolina (3), at South Carolina (3), South Carolina* (3), UALR (31), at Texas A&M (32), at Arkansas (42), Rutgers (43), Tulane (52), at Miami (65)
*-at SEC tournament
LSU will get in if …
The selection committee remembers its history – and that Danielle Ballard missed the Lady Tigers’ first 14 games. LSU went 10-6 in Southeastern Conference play (plus a top 50 win in the SEC tournament), and no 10-win SEC team has ever been left out of the NCAA field. Four losses to RPI top three Tennessee and South Carolina won’t hurt much.
LSU will get left out if …
Thirteen losses is a big number, including one to RPI No. 224 Santa Clara in Mexico that ranks as LSU’s worst result. The Lady Tigers have as many wins over teams ranked 202 or lower (six) as they do against the top 100. It’s a feast or famine kind of résumé that means LSU isn’t a lock.
Scott Rabalais’ prediction
LSU makes it four-for-four NCAA bids under Nikki Caldwell, earning a No. 10 seed in the Albany Regional to play No. 7 Syracuse in Tallahassee, Florida.
Charlie Crème, ESPN
REGION: Oklahoma City
OPPONENT: Northwestern (7)
SITE: Waco, Texas
NOTE: In the women’s tournament, the top four seeds in each regional host first- and second-round games barring a scheduling conflict. Baylor, a projected No. 2 seed, would play at home in Waco.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.