By now, first-year LSU basketball coach Will Wade has gotten an introduction to our infamous Baton Rouge traffic, knowing what it’s like to be set adrift in a sea of red tail lights.
In basketball terms, Wade’s Tigers are in the midst of a whopper of a traffic jam as well. Maybe it will prove to be clairvoyance, maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but after LSU’s 94-86 win over Arkansas on Saturday, Wade sees the possibility of a postseason off ramp for his team.
The win, completing a season sweep of the Razorbacks, moved the Tigers to 13-9 overall and 4-6 in the Southeastern Conference. Modest numbers by postseason contender standards, but impressive considering the 10-21, 2-16 season that preceded this one. What’s remarkable is where LSU is in the SEC standings. After Saturday’s play, the Tigers find themselves in a six-team mash-up for eighth place. That’s nearly half the league.
Following a dreadful showing at Tennessee on Wednesday night, Will Wade called out his guards Friday.
It wouldn’t be so noteworthy were it not for the fact that some of those teams at 4-6 with LSU are considered NCAA worthy. Texas A&M and Arkansas, both 15-8 overall and both teams that have gotten the back side of the broom from the Tigers, were in the field of 68 in ESPN’s most recent Bracketology released Thursday. Also at 4-6 are Georgia (also 13-9) and South Carolina (13-10), teams that have flirted with NCAA tournament worthiness and right now would probably be in the NIT. Ole Miss (11-12) is the rear guard of the 4-6 group.
Wade figures some of these teams are going to find their way into the postseason. Why not, he suggests, LSU?
“At this point it’ll be a race,” he said. “Two of those teams will get in the NCAA tournament. One or two others will go to the NIT. It’s a race to be one of those four teams to get to the postseason at this point.”
The case for LSU to be one of those teams is equal parts compelling and confounding.
The good: The Tigers are collecting top-50 RPI wins at a remarkable rate. Saturday’s victory over Arkansas (RPI entering the game: 28; now: 40) was LSU’s sixth this season, along with the wins over Texas A&M twice, Michigan and Houston. The latest RPI has the Tigers at No. 75 after Saturday’s win. Only five teams ranked ahead of LSU have as more or as many top-50 RPI wins as the Tigers: Villanova (eight), Virginia (seven), and Kansas, Oklahoma and Florida (six). That’s a strong statement for the Tigers to be able to make, at least to the NIT selection committee.
The bad: LSU also has six wins over RPI teams ranked 150 or worse, the price of piecing together a non-conference schedule largely crafted to help build up the Tigers’ confidence. And there are no victories over RPI teams ranked 51-100.
Then there is the mercurial way the Tigers have played this season. Saturday’s win came largely because LSU shot the lights out — the Tigers made 15 of 30 3-point tries and overall shot 52.7 percent from the field — and Tremont Waters had a game for the ages. His 27 points and 11 assists made him just the second SEC player after in the past 20 years with at least 27 points and 11 assists in a game, joining Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, who had 27 and 12 two years ago against South Carolina.
The Tigers can’t count on those kinds of performances every game. No one knows that better than Wade.
“This is not a sustainable way to win. This is kind of the outlier. I’ll take it, but we lost the rebounding battle by five” 30-25, Wade said, and were outscored in the paint 48-22. “But it worked well today.”
Every game won’t be Saturday, of course. Eight games remain in the regular season for LSU, plus at least one game in the SEC tournament. To reach the NIT, the Tigers probably have to find a way to win at least five of those nine games. There are six games left against teams ranked ahead of LSU in the current RPI: at Florida, at Alabama, Missouri, at Georgia, at South Carolina and Mississippi State. The other two are home games with Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Wade said he didn’t want to characterize the Arkansas game as a must-win for his Tigers, but their home games with the Rebels and Commodores will be.
In the end it’s preferable but not vital for LSU to reach the postseason in its first season under Wade. This is a program building for the future, and while an NIT bid would be a great selling point for the Tigers with the kinds of recruits Wade needs to build sustained success, they’re already being sold on what they’re seeing.
Saturday’s win proves Wade’s program is already trafficking in the kind of promise LSU’s administration and fans hoped to see right off the bat from their phenom young coach. Now the goal is the Tigers’ first postseason bid since 2015.
An impossible dream? Not as impossible now as a traffic-free trip to the PMAC.