On Sunday morning, a couple of old friends talked on the phone as LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones caught up with North Carolina State counterpart Mark Gottfried.
Jones, a member of Gottfried’s coaching staff at Alabama in 2000-01, was on his way to church when he phoned Gottfried, who had sent a text message Saturday night saying he hoped LSU would get into the NCAA tournament.
Hours later, LSU, which many experts believed was on the bubble, did receive an invitation for the first time since the 2008-09 season when the Tigers were tabbed as the No. 9 seed in the East region.
Their first opponent? Gottfried and No. 8 seed North Carolina State, which they’ll face Thursday around 8:20 p.m. at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The winner gets the survivor of Villanova, the No. 1 seed in the region, and No. 16 seed Lafayette on Saturday.
“When I saw their name come up (on the selection show), I was excited for him and where they were,” Jones said Sunday. “Then, our name popped up underneath (on the bracket). … We’ve been friends for a long, long time in the profession. It certainly will be an interesting game for the both of us.”
While admitting it’s always difficult to play against a good friend, Jones later said he and his team didn’t care where they played or whom they faced after a roller-coaster season.
LSU (22-10) finished in a four-way tie for third place in the Southeastern Conference and was seeded fourth for the league tournament — which gave it a double-bye. But the Tigers lost for the second time this season to Auburn in the quarterfinals Friday, forcing them to wait about 48 hours before learning their fate.
On Sunday, they learned they were in and would meet N.C. State (20-13). Playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation, the Wolfpack lost to Duke, which they beat earlier in the season, in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.
LSU’s résumé included several wins over prominent teams along with a handful of unexpected losses, but the Tigers got in easily as the 35th overall seed in a 68-team field that begins play Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the first two of four first-round games.
With an NCAA.com RPI of 56 on Sunday morning, LSU’s 12-5 record against teams in the top 100, including 3-2 against teams in the top 50, and a 8-3 road record apparently impressed the selection committee.
Two of LSU’s best wins came at Arkansas and West Virginia with RPIs of 20 and 24 earlier Sunday. The Tigers topped the Razorbacks 81-78 earlier this month and stunned the host Mountaineers 74-73 on Dec. 4.
Jones and his team were confident they were solidly in the field after Friday’s loss because of their entire body of work, and they tried to keep a positive attitude through the next couple of days.
“I think we’ve been an exciting team to watch all year long, points per game and the way we play with our up-tempo offense,” Jones said. “What we have been able to do on the road at West Virginia and Arkansas … we’re still the only team in the country to play Kentucky to a two-point game. Although we’ve had some setbacks because of the inexperience of our team, our guys have done a tremendous job of bouncing back. I was hopeful that the committee took a lot of things into consideration.”
LSU, 11-7 in the SEC with a 6-3 road mark in the league, was one of five league schools picked for the tournament — the most for the SEC since five went in 2011. The Tigers join top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia and Ole Miss in the tournament.
To no one’s surprise, Kentucky was awarded the No. 1 overall seed after improving to 34-0 with a 78-63 victory over Arkansas in the SEC tournament final earlier Sunday.
LSU will be playing in the postseason for the second year in a row. Last spring, the Tigers went to the National Invitation Tournament and beat San Francisco on the road before being eliminated by SMU in the second round.
“Our guys are extremely excited,” Jones said, “and we look forward to the challenges that we have in front of us.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.