LEXINGTON, Ky. — While pondering another double-digit road loss just outside the LSU men’s basketball team’s locker room Saturday afternoon, Tim Quarterman was given something else to chew on.
The regular season was in the books, thankfully, and LSU was looking forward to the Southeastern Conference tournament, where the Tigers will be the No. 4 seed for their first game in Friday’s quarterfinals.
The question wasn’t whether LSU can beat Vanderbilt, Auburn or Tennessee in that game. It was whether they can put together three wins in a row and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
In LSU’s case, for this week anyway, the old cliché about taking it one game at a time doesn’t apply.
When asked whether the Tigers can win three games in 48 hours, Quarterman’s response was quick and to the point.
“Definitely,” he said.
When asked what made him believe that, he said, “Just knowing how good we are, and what we can and can’t do.
“I definitely think we are (an NCAA tournament team),” Quarterman said after scoring 23 points in a 94-77 setback against No. 22 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. “When we’re at our best, we’re an NCAA tournament team.”
The problem: LSU hasn’t been at its best enough — especially as it posted a 7-6 nonconference record and as it dropped four of its final six conference games. The last three losses — all on the road — were by 16, 20 and 17 points.
Which is why coach Johnny Jones was looking forward to playing someone on a neutral floor — even if the opponent winds up being Vanderbilt, which will be playing just a few miles from its campus in Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
“At a neutral site, we have three games in three days, hopefully, to have an opportunity to play for a championship,” Jones said. “That’s got to be our focus now. ... We have to move on and make sure that’s where our mindset is.”
“We just have to stay consistent and try to go on a run,” Quarterman said.
That’s if they can get things straightened out in a hurry.
“A lot of it is self-inflicted,” forward Ben Simmons said. “We’ve lost a lot of games just because of the way we’ve played, not necessarily the way other teams are playing. It’s little things: rebounding, turning the ball over, free throws — just little things.”
The good news, besides emerging from the 18-game league schedule with a top-four seed and a double bye, is LSU defeated 10 of the other 12 teams in this week’s tournament. (Missouri, which LSU beat last week, is ineligible for the postseason.)
“These guys have done an incredible job to finish in the top four in this conference, as closely contested as it is and with the youthfulness of our team,” Jones said. “We’ve put ourselves in position with the double bye. That’s where you want to be, and you just have to play from there.
“Friday will be a big game for us,” he added, “so we play well there and get in the semifinals … anything can happen there. Then you know what happens in championship games.”
Still, Sunday’s championship game must seem light years away after their latest defeat.
After a strong 11½ minutes to start the game against Kentucky, the things that have hurt LSU recently — inconsistent play on offense and poor defense — returned.
Kentucky pounded the ball inside to its big men — Skal Labissiere, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee — who gladly took turns making plays at and above the rim.
They combined to hit 20 of 24 field-goal attempts, and the Wildcats finished with 12 dunks. A 45-29 rebounding edge, with 18 of them coming on the offensive glass, didn’t hurt.
Offensively, Kentucky piled up 53 points in the second half, the fourth LSU opponent in the past five games to score at least 50 after halftime.
“In the SEC tournament, we have to be more committed on the defensive end and do a better job blocking out,” Jones said. “If we can defend and rebound in the tournament, we’ll have a little bit of firepower to score points.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.