With only five regular-season games and at least one Southeastern Conference tournament game left, the LSU men’s basketball team is running out of opportunities to make its case for a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
Following Wednesday’s 76-69 home loss to Alabama, at least one member of the 10-person committee that will select the NCAA tournament’s 68-team field three weeks from Sunday — LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva — said he was “concerned” about where the Tigers are at this point.
Alleva, speaking Friday on “Your Morning Drive” on ESPN 104.5/104.9-FM in Baton Rouge, said he didn’t think their chances are very good right now.
“In other words, we need to win a lot of games,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose many more games going forward.”
Later Friday, Alleva told The Advocate that if the season ended right now, LSU would be in “serious danger” of not getting in.
“This morning, our RPI was 82, and I don’t know if a team ever got an at-large bid with an RPI over 80,” he said. “We’d be there in the discussion, but it would be tough.”
Alleva did note, as committee chair Joe Castiglione did a week ago, that the group will consider that LSU played its first eight games without two starters: guard Keith Hornsby and forward Craig Victor.
Even though LSU (16-10, 9-4) is in second place in the conference, just a game behind Kentucky, the Tigers have a lot of work to do to make a significant leap and impress Alleva and his fellow committee members.
The work begins with a two-game road swing that starts at 4:30 p.m. Saturday against Tennessee (12-14, 5-8), followed three days later by a date with Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Winning both games would be huge, considering Tennessee has beaten Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina on its home floor and Arkansas has a home-court win over Texas A&M.
“The good news is we have five more games to play. ... But we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Alleva said. “We can’t afford any slip-ups. If we got in (today), we’d be one of the very last ones in. ... If we win four of the last five, any of them, I think we get in.”
No one has to tell the Tigers the résumé isn’t that impressive, especially after it failed to put Alabama away in a game that would have boosted the Tigers’ chances since the Crimson Tide has an RPI of 32.
Prior to that loss, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi had LSU as a No. 7 seed on his bracket. But he dropped them to a No. 11 seed the next morning with one of the last four byes into the tournament.
Of course, that’s only a guess at this point. What really matters is what happens over the next three weeks, which is why coach Johnny Jones said after a huge win against Texas A&M last Saturday that he and his team don’t talk about RPIs or tournament seeding.
“We just talk about winning; all that stuff is for naught if you don’t win,” he said. “Really, if you win enough games, it really kind of takes care of itself. We just have to play and not focus on things on the perimeter. The things we can control are how hard we play and our attitude.”
LSU certainly has been adept at focusing after a loss.
The Tigers rebounded from their first two setbacks in conference play with winning streaks of two and four games before the Crimson Tide ended that.
Still, LSU hasn’t dropped back-to-back league games in more than a year — the only time that has happened in the past two seasons.
“We’ve done a good job of bouncing back because there’s a lot of confidence in this team as a whole,” Hornsby said. “No matter how good a team is, losses are going to happen. But there’s no reason to lose all our confidence because we’re still a good team.”
If it wants to avoid a second league loss in a row, LSU will have to play much better perimeter defense against Tennessee and guard Kevin Punter after Bama’s Retin Obasohan, Justin Coleman and Arthur Edwards torched the Tigers for 68 of the Crimson Tide’s 76 points.
They shot 21-of-37 from the field — including 11-of-24 from 3-point range — adding to a trend that has seen guards score 20 points or more 10 times in LSU’s 13 SEC games.
Punter ranks second in the league in averaging 22.2 points per game, just a shade behind the 22.8 average of Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody.
“I know our guys are capable of the level they’re capable of playing at, because we’ve done it before,” Jones said. “Defending takes a great deal of pride, and you have to be as passionate in doing it because it means something to you. You have to be able to do that.”
NOTE: Former LSU center Stanley Roberts was named the school’s honoree for the 2016 class of Southeastern Conference basketball legends. Roberts and a legend from the other 13 league schools will be recognized during the SEC men’s tournament, to be played March 9-13 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Scott Rabalais contributed to this report.