In the final minute of fielding postgame questions, Charles Carmouche pulled back the curtain on the engineering project that has resulted from picking up nuts, bolts, washers, sprockets and a host of other parts strewn about after LSU lost its first four Southeastern Conference games.
The Tigers were fresh from dispatching Arkansas, which moved them to 8-7 in the SEC and into a potential No. 7 seed for the conference tournament. The question was whether the victory made it possible to address whether snaring an NIT bid was a reasonable goal.
“We don’t want to settle for the NIT,” Carmouche said. “We want to go to the NCAA tournament.”
Now, dear reader, you’ll need to bear with me over the next 400 words because Carmouche’s proclamation isn’t completely unhinged.
On Thursday, LSU jumped 13 spots to No. 79 in the RPI, according to CollegeRPI.com, and has seemingly declared a vendetta against the SEC’s bubble teams. It took three overtimes, but the Tigers dispatched Alabama, which sits ahead of them at No. 65. Arkansas, which slid to No. 88, effectively had its hopes nuked.
Saturday, the Tigers trek to Missouri, which seems reasonably assured of a bid with a No. 38 RPI and No. 63 strength of schedule. After that comes a trip to Texas A&M and the finale against Ole Miss, which has tumbled from a 6-0 SEC start to a precarious 9-5 mark, a No. 51 RPI with a weak No. 135 strength of schedule.
I’ll be very blunt: The Tigers are not on the at-large bubble.
The larger point, though, is the crop of SEC squads conferred that status really aren’t that indistinguishable from those who aren’t so fortunate. No. 11 Florida is the SEC’s only sure entity, and the Gators have key injuries to reserve guard Michael Frazier II and forward Will Yeguete. There’s plenty of parity after the Gators, meaning the Tigers or any of their peers could get enough kinetic energy to make a run over four days.
Aside from Tennessee, which has won six in a row, no SEC team is hotter than LSU — a facet that boosts Carmouche’s confidence.
“We are growing and showing that we are a tournament-caliber type of team,” he said. “We want to be one of those teams that are talked about to get in the tournament.”
The sentiment was aptly addressed by coach Johnny Jones, who noted the “buzz” surrounding the stakes for Arkansas’ NCAA tournament chances. Laying their résumés side by side, the profile is comparable. For example, LSU is 4-6 against RPI top-100 opponents, and Arkansas is 4-8.
“Our guys look at that and read into it and figure, ‘What do we have to do to get somebody mentioning us about that?’ ” Jones said. “They understand that their play will have to speak for itself. That’s the only thing they can do.”
It’s also about as far as Jones is willing to stray into speculating about NIT or NCAA tournament speculation.
“You guys really should do that,” he said.