Barring a major collapse in the next five weeks, the LSU men’s basketball team could have all but wrapped up an NCAA tournament bid with a win over No. 1 Oklahoma on Saturday.
At the least, toppling an experienced and talented OU team would have done wonders for LSU’s RPI heading into the final month-plus of the regular season.
But when the Tigers couldn’t hang on to a 14-point second-half lead against the Sooners and fell 77-75, they assured themselves of one thing: They’re going to have to scratch and claw their way into the NCAA tournament.
There’s no denying that their work is cut out for them in the final 10 games of the Southeastern Conference schedule, which resumes Tuesday at Auburn. It certainly won’t be easy considering LSU has five games remaining on the road — including trips to South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky.
Five games at home won’t be a picnic, either, especially with No. 5 Texas A&M and Florida coming to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in what will be a pivotal February. Both of those teams beat LSU at home.
So while the bad news was the roller coaster of a season continued with the bitter setback to Oklahoma, the good news is the Tigers still have time to make something of it.
No one at this point can say for sure what it will take to make the NCAA field. But one guess is LSU (13-8) likely has to go no worse than 7-3 — with no bad losses — to finish 20-11 (and 13-5 in the SEC).
In addition, the Tigers, whose official NCAA RPI dipped two spots to 83 on Sunday, likely would have to win one, perhaps two, SEC tournament games to be in the conversation.
Again, that’s just a guess — which everything is at this point when you get past the nation’s elite teams.
On Saturday, though, the Tigers weren’t thinking about what might happen once March arrives.
After the disappointment of his team not being able to seal the deal when it had Oklahoma on the ropes, coach Johnny Jones was ready to face an Auburn team that won two of three games against LSU a year ago.
“The way we’ve been approaching our season and games, it’s been the next game for us,” he said. “The most important game on our schedule right now would be at Auburn on Tuesday night. We have to make sure we put (Oklahoma) behind us in order to be able to move on. The guys have done an excellent job (doing that) so far this year.”
Still, Jones said he was pleased with how his team competed against the Sooners. The big problem areas were committing 15 turnovers and allowing Oklahoma to get 14 of its 34 rebounds on the offensive end.
Lesson learned, guard Tim Quarterman said.
“Playing against good teams like that, you can’t turn the ball over as many times as we turned it over,” he said. “We just have to take care of the ball and get shots instead of turnovers. We have to get more possessions for our team. That was big.”
When you put points off turnovers and second-chance points together, the Sooners outscored the Tigers 34-20 — a number that stood out to Jones.
Another problem was the production OU got from guard Buddy Hield and backcourt mate Isaiah Cousins.
Hield proved he’s the frontrunner for player of the year honors when he poured in 21 of his 32 points in the second half to lead the comeback, and Cousins had 18 with what turned out to be the winning basket with 3.8 seconds to play.
“It was like a high-level conference game for us,” Jones said.
“What we’ll take from it is being able to play at that level against that caliber of competition night in and night out, and see what happens.”