This is it for LSU basketball.
No, really, this really is it.
LSU’s season really wasn’t on the brink before, but it is now.
Butch and Sundance are on the cliff looking down at the rocky river with the posse of “those guys” closing in from the heights above.
The Tigers technically still have a path to glory, sitting as they are one game off Kentucky’s lead in the awesomely average Southeastern Conference, but it’s a path strewn with potentially crushing boulders. The first one is Tuesday night’s trip to Arkansas. Two straight losses on the scoreboard to Alabama and Tennessee, plus one big loss on the roster of the apparently reinjured Keith Hornsby, has pushed the Tigers to this point of no return.
And, yet, LSU is in second place in the SEC. If the Tigers could get hot, get their minds right, they could still do no worse than tie for the regular-season championship. LSU controls its own destiny in this regard, always — no, usually — an enviable position. Win four more games, and a share of a conference crown (an overlooked gem by most critics for some reason) and there’s no way the NCAA selection committee would shut the Tigers out. Win the SEC tournament in a wide-open year, and it’s an automatic bid.
But it doesn’t add up, does it?
Theoretical mathematics might tell you Ben Simmons can balance the rest of his teammates on his head and carry them to the NCAA tournament, but a realistic eye tells you it can’t be done.
Not after Saturday’s game, when LSU got taken down to the Tennessee River and beaten on a rock by the out-talented, out-heighted, out-star-powered Volunteers.
Now LSU gets to try to get a win in Fayetteville, once home office of a brand of basketball known as “Forty Minutes of Hell.”
Perhaps this is what Johnny Jones and his basketball team deserve. Some sort of purgatory for giving LSU fans a season in which by turns the Tigers have ping-ponged from flat to inspired, from motivated to disinterested, from sharp execution to dull and mistake-prone non-effort.
There’s plenty of praise and blame to go round. Jones and his staff got Simmons to come here for this one-year exhibition, and under Jones’ direction LSU has won more games in his first four seasons than in the first four seasons of any other coach in program history. But the lack of a plan, of a scheme, of sophisticated plays is troubling in the extreme.
Then there’s the players. You don’t have to have talent to try hard. LSU’s women’s team has been operating at a talent deficit all season, but its players have tried hard. The Lady Tigers struggle mightily to put the ball through the hoop, but they rank a very respectable fourth in the SEC in scoring defense in conference games.
Defense is about effort. Watching Tennessee players riddle LSU’s 2-3 zone time and again Saturday with uncontested midrange jumpers was the sign of a team that can’t be bothered to give a hoot, even with its NCAA tournament hopes evaporating.
Now those hopes are little more than a mirage.
There’s still a chance, though. You have to look no further back than to last year’s season finale, when Hornsby sank a game-winning 3-pointer at Arkansas, a win that likely pushed the Tigers into the NCAA tournament.
Hornsby probably won’t be bombing away in this game, so someone else has to take up the slack.
Simmons has to stop with the academic issues. Applause for Jones for holding Ben to the same academic standards as everyone else, even if it were for no other reason than LSU’s APR. Simmons needs to lead this team with more points, more rebounds and a more responsible attitude.
Tim Quarterman needs to stop with the peaks and valleys and pouting about Simmons stealing his thunder and give LSU the steady plateau of scoring and defense of which he is capable every time.
And Craig Victor needs to stay off the fouls and stay in the game, giving the Tigers the toughness they need down low if they’re going to survive and advance.
Frankly, it’s hard to see the Tigers changing their stripes now. A team this deep in the season isn’t likely to change what it is at its core.
But I’m telling you there’s still a chance before the regular season ends.