NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — In his latest NCAA women’s tournament projections Sunday morning, ESPN analyst Charlie Crème looked into his crystal basketball and put the LSU Lady Tigers on the No. 10 seed line, playing Rutgers in the Greensboro regional in Tallahassee, Florida.
LSU and Rutgers played back on Nov. 22, with Rutgers winning 64-57 at LSU in the Sue Gunter Classic. The NCAA selection committees are supposed to avoid rematches, if possible, so this matchup likely won’t happen, but that’s not the point.
The point is, back then the Lady Tigers hardly looked like there would be any reason to project anywhere come March as far as the NCAA tournament goes other than sitting in front of the TV watching the action.
LSU dropped to 2-3 with that loss, soon to be 2-4 with a 69-67 defeat to a weak Santa Clara team in Mexico in the botched up Hardwood Tournament of (No) Hope. That defeat, against a team currently No. 223 in the RPI, was the only game LSU would play in that event thanks to the gross mismanagement by tournament organizers. Scheduled games with UTEP and Kansas State disappeared south of the border like your misrouted luggage.
The Santa Clara loss would prove to be an anchor on LSU’s RPI all season. Not that it seemed to matter. LSU went into Southeastern Conference play 6-6, its worst non-conference record since 20 years ago when Gunter responded to an ultimatum from then athletic director Joe Dean to start winning again. The Lady Tigers soon recruited Pietra Gay and Elaine Powell and got on the track that eventually led the program to five straight Final Four appearances.
LSU isn’t close to returning to those glory days, but after what looked like a disastrous start there are positives to be taken from the way the Lady Tigers rebounded.
That LSU went 11-7 after that 6-6 start doesn’t sound all that great, but those six losses came in what is always one of women’s basketball’s toughest and deepest conferences. That 11-7 record includes a 10-6 mark in SEC play that earned LSU a No. 4 SEC tournament seed with a 4-5 mark against currently ranked teams, which translates into four all-important wins against the NCAA RPI Top 50 (No. 8 Kentucky, No. 29 Mississippi State and two against No. 34 Texas A&M).
That’s a strong résumé for a team in LSU’s area code, and the Lady Tigers’ RPI track reflects that. After beating A&M 71-65 in Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinals, LSU’s RPI bounced up sharply from No. 70 to No. 58 and moved up to No. 57 on Sunday. Considering the Lady Tigers played four games combined against SEC tournament finalists South Carolina and Tennessee, their RPI may get a little more lift before Selection Monday rolls around next week.
No secret as to the reason for LSU’s improvement during SEC play. Her name is Danielle Ballard. The All-SEC guard returned from her 14-game exile to start the season and immediately started paying huge dividends as a scorer, rebounder, ball handler and SEC steals leader. It’s true, South Carolina’s iron curtain defense threw Ballard in a locked closet Saturday, limiting her to eight points to end her streak of double-figure scoring games at 13. But LSU isn’t likely to see anyone who has the length and depth South Carolina in the first round or two of the NCAA tournament.
There will be a butterfly or two floating around the Lady Tigers’ viewing party next Monday night as they wait to see “LSU” appear on the TV screen. The Lady Tigers aren’t a lock to get in, but LSU has trended well and is probably about a 90 percent chance to earn its 24th NCAA bid.
Of course, LSU aspires to be better than just get an NCAA bid. The talent gap between the Lady Tigers and South Carolina and Tennessee, the SEC co-champions, was evident as LSU was unable to get within 17 points of either team in their four meetings.
Closing that gap is an issue, a pressing issue, for another day. For now, the Lady Tigers need to rest up, practice hard, and get ready to play some more basketball.
It hasn’t been easy or often been pretty, but they’ve earned it.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.