This always figured to be the most difficult season of Nikki Caldwell’s tenure at LSU.

Her first team went 23-11, reached the Southeastern Conference tournament final against Tennessee (Caldwell’s alma mater) and the NCAA tournament’s second round. But the loss of five seniors — led by All-SEC forward LaSondra Barrett — plus the shocking departure of sophomore-to-be forward Krystal Forthan left this team in a bind with only 10 players.

Caldwell believes her team can win every game it plays. Not surprisingly, though, the season has hardly worked out that way.

Her team was drummed 74-57 Monday night by No. 14 Texas A&M, the Lady Tigers’ worst loss of the season. Literally adding injury to insult, point guard Jeanne Kenney went down with an undetermined knee injury, her status unknown for Thursday’s home game with No. 12 Tennessee.

This is a crucial stretch for LSU: three straight home games against ranked teams (No. 9 Georgia rolls in Sunday). Games that the Lady Tigers (13-9, 4-5 SEC) can ill afford to lose if they are to revive their flagging NCAA hopes.

“We’re in a desperate situation here,” Caldwell said.

A lack of depth and a lack of concentration have volleyed Caldwell between being proud of her players and wanting to stamp her stiletto heels in frustration.

“We’re not a 40-minute team,” she said. “When fatigue sets in, we lack focus. Our scouting report defense goes out the window, and our shot selection isn’t as good.”

Her point was made against A&M. Trailing the entire game, LSU drew within five points with four minutes to go, but the Aggies pulled away with a 13-1 finishing kick the Lady Tigers were powerless to stop.

“When the fatigue sets in, we are less coachable, we have a tendency to have lazy plays, and that’s when teams go on their runs,” Caldwell said.

Help is on the way — this fall. LSU loses senior guards Adrienne Webb and Bianca Lutley but adds five-star guard Raigyne Moncrief and four-star guard Jasmine Rhodes. Caldwell is also shopping junior colleges for rebounding help.

The recruiting reception is improving, but not what she had as an assistant at Tennessee.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “We’ve got to win. We’ve got to put LSU back on the top in the conference. We’re going after some of the same kids that Kentucky and Tennessee are recruiting, and they’re choosing them.”

For now, LSU has to aim simply to make the NCAA tournament, which will open with two rounds at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in March. Caldwell thinks her team must go .500 in SEC play to get a bid.

The prospect of watching four teams play on LSU’s home floor is too painful for Caldwell to contemplate.

“I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “I honestly don’t. I don’t want to even think about it, because it’s not going to happen.

“It had better not happen. So we had better find a way.”