LSU’s upset loss to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday begat 48 hours of hand wringing and rampant speculation, bracketology dissection and bubble watching, and probably in at least one corner, an exorcism for the Tigers’ free-throw shooting.
As the hours ticked away until the 5 p.m. NCAA selection show, LSU guard Josh Gray had to go on Twitter to relieve his jitters.
“I(‘ve) never been this nervous in my life,” Gray said.
Turns out, Gray and the rest of the Tigers had no need to strain their giblets. The butterflies could wait until the next time they toe the free-throw line.
LSU, despite its eccentric mood swings, its ability to come within a contested 3-pointer of toppling the best team in the nation, and its knack for losing to the SEC’s cellar dwellers, was in the NCAA tournament with room to spare.
Lace up some fresh Nikes and get ready to go dancing, fellas.
It’s been a long time coming.
It was not, apparently, a long time debating for the NCAA selection committee.
The committee seeds the entire tournament 1-68. LSU came in just about in the middle, as the No. 35 overall seed, ninth in the East Regional, taking on No. 8 North Carolina State on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
I participated in the NCAA mock selection exercise last month in Indianapolis. Judging by that experience, LSU was a fairly easy pick.
The selection committee starts by choosing a bunch of teams that are absolute locks as at-larges, 20 or so squads like Kentucky and Kansas and Oklahoma and, most likely, Arkansas.
Then comes a series of votes as teams are transferred over into the tournament, like layers of a cake, a few at a time. My guess is LSU, despite the Auburn loss to fall to 22-10 overall and a No. 56 RPI, made it into the field sometime Saturday.
Why the huge disparity between the Tigers’ RPI and their overall seeding, the speculation and the rather secure seed LSU wound up with?
The reason, NCAA selection committee chairman Scott Barnes said, basically came down to quality wins and the look of the Tigers as a quality team.
“They had two great road wins against Arkansas and West Virginia, plus a sweep of Ole Miss,” Barnes said after the bracket was unveiled. “Then there’s the eye test. As you think about LSU, that really came up often among the committee members.”
“The eye test.” The Tigers look the part of an NCAA tournament participant. They play an exciting, up-tempo, fun-to-watch brand of basketball. The kind of ball that gets you noticed. The kind of ball that had the TV folks set LSU up with a prime-time game on TBS against N.C. State.
“I think we’ve been an exciting team to watch all year long with what we’ve been able to do on the road at West Virginia and Arkansas,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “And we’re still the only team in the country to play Kentucky to a two-point game. Although we’ve had some setbacks because of the inexperience of our team, our guys have done a tremendous job of bouncing back.”
The slow but steady progress LSU has made in three years under Jones — from sitting at home with 19 wins two years ago to 20 wins and winning a game in the NIT last year — begs the question: Can the Tigers do more than just earn an NCAA bid?
In North Carolina State, LSU gets a team much like itself, one that beat a No. 1 seed in Duke (not that the Tigers have a win that good) and had a close loss to ACC champ Virginia but also stumbled against ACC lowlights like Wake Forest, Boston College and (like LSU) Clemson. Awaiting the winner of their game is East Regional top seed Villanova on Saturday.
No NCAA tournament path is going to be an easy one, but for LSU, winning a game or two is at least doable. N.C. State has 13 losses. And Villanova (32-2), for all its success, has at least been tested a couple of times lately by Providence (63-61), Creighton (76-72) and Butler (68-65). And it stands to reason: If the Tigers can come within a contested 3-pointer of ending Kentucky’s unbeaten dream, they can play with anyone.
There’s no telling with this LSU team. Could be one-and-done, could be in the Final Four (the former being more likely, of course).
But whether or not the Tigers belong in the NCAA tournament? That’s not worthy of debate.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.