With a No. 24 national ranking and an RPI of 28, the LSU Lady Tigers are certain to be going back to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The emphasis is on going. Going somewhere. LSU (19-9) didn’t quite do enough to be in the conversation for a top-four regional seed, the teams that still get to host first- and second-round games in the women’s tournament.
ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème has pegged the Lady Tigers as a No. 6 seed the past couple of weeks, with the added intriguing twist of going to play at UCLA. That’s where LSU coach Nikki Fargas coached for three seasons before coming to Baton Rouge in 2011.
LSU will learn its NCAA destination during the women’s tournament selection show, which begins at 6 p.m. Monday on ESPN. The field of 64 teams swings into action Friday and Saturday at 16 first- and second-round sites across the country.
The tournament runs through April 1, concluding with the Women’s Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.
Whether the NCAA selction committee actually does set up that potential second-round matchup between LSU and UCLA is unknowable at this point to those outside the committee room.
What is knowable is that UCLA, or whichever teams are grouped with LSU in a sub-regional site, aren’t likely to be thrilled by the Lady Tigers showing up in their corner of the bracket. Though not a team anyone is picking to reach the Final Four, this LSU squad has all the ingredients of a middle-seeded team that can give anyone fits.
“We’ve got one best backcourts in the country,” Fargas said, referring to her team’s 1-2 scoring punch of guards Chloe Jackson and Raigyne Louis. “When we click on all cylinders, we’ve got really good foot speed. I like where our training is.
“I like that we can mix up our lineup and we can work ourselves into what we want to be: quick, small and aggressive; or go big with a power look. We’re able to play different styles of basketball, which I like. And our matchup zone is really good to us.”
On the cusp of its 25th NCAA tournament appearance overall and sixth under Fargas, LSU has climbed a long way from the 10-21 season of two years ago. Ravaged by injuries and the offseason dismissal of star guard Danielle Ballard, the Lady Tigers suffered their first losing season in two decades.
Fargas, accustomed to winning as a coach and as a former player at Tennessee, vowed it wouldn’t happen again. LSU bounced back to go 20-12 last season and snag a No. 8 seed, and it will reach the 20-win plateau again with a victory in its first-round NCAA game. This after going 11-5 to tie for fourth in the Southeastern Conference, LSU’s most conference wins since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 2009-10.
“When you look at the timeline and where our team was just two years ago with all the injuries we sustained, we were fighting our way back,” Fargas said. “It’s not easy to play in the SEC and solidify 11 wins. That’s a hard thing in our league.
“This group has gotten healthier. Even last year we weren’t as healthy as we could have been, with players (Louis and forward Ayana Mitchell) coming off major injuries. I do think that plays a part in why we're in the position we’re in today.”
Fargas said there were times last year when she had to move former guard Jasmine Rhoades, at 5-foot-10, to power forward because of roster limitations. This year she has the 6-2 Mitchell in that spot and a rotation of true centers in 6-6 Yasmine Bidikuindila and Faustine Aifuwa, as well as 6-4 freshman forward Raven Farley.
“We feel we’re putting our players in their true positions,” Fargas said. “When you’re injured and you have a roster that isn’t healthy, you put the pieces together the best way you can.”
Despite losing Louis to graduation, LSU should return every other player to its roster for 2018-19. The Lady Tigers will also add 5-11 guard Rakell Spencer, a three-time all-state player at Cabrini High School in New Orleans who sat out this season after transferring from Texas A&M.
“I like the future of our program,” Fargas said. “For what we were able to do with such a young roster, I’m excited for next year.”
Of course, Fargas isn’t ready to put a wrap on this year just yet.