Nikki Fargas never knew what a losing season was.
She’d seen losing in the faces of her opponents going back to when she started playing at age 6. But all her teams ever did was win. She won a state title and lost just three games in high school. She won a national title and lost just 11 games at Tennessee. As an assistant at Virginia and Tennessee, and as a head coach at UCLA and in her first four years at LSU, she stacked one winning season upon another, twice leading LSU to the NCAA Sweet 16 amid four NCAA tournament trips.
But this season has been a sobering lesson in how the other half lives.
The Lady Tigers went 10-21, 3-13 in the Southeastern Conference. By at least two standards, it’s the worst season in LSU women’s basketball history, with the most SEC losses (the 1992-93 team went 0-11) and most losses overall (the 1994-95 team went 7-20).
The season made a big impression on Fargas, she said.
“This has been a learning experience for me,” Fargas said. “I truly feel it will make me a better coach. Make me learn what other people have had to face.
“Make no mistake, this is no place I’m comfortable being in. Not one you ever want to go back to.”
It’s a long way from the heady days of Seimone Augustus and Temeka Johnson and Sylvia Fowles. The five Women’s Final Four banners that hang from the catwalk inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center seemed to mock this year’s proceedings instead of celebrate the Lady Tigers’ glorious past.
Though fan interest and ticket-buying support in the program has eroded, interest in Fargas’ future at LSU has only grown. “Will she be back?” has been a popular question in Baton Rouge virtually this entire season.
So let’s get this out of the way: Fargas will return for the 2016-17 season. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who hired her in 2011, has been steadfast in that, citing in large part the extenuating circumstances that conspired to create this dismal, un-LSU-like record.
“We’ve suffered through a really tough year with a tremendous amount of injuries, and losing Danielle Ballard was really tough,” Alleva said Friday.
“I’m very confident we’re going to have a really good year next year.”
Alleva declined to say if Fargas had a mandate to return to the NCAA tournament, but you have believe she does. Frankly, there aren’t as many quality programs in women’s basketball as there are in men’s. LSU has more than enough tradition, support and resources that making the NCAA tournament should be the bare minimum for the Lady Tigers every year.
LSU lost 75 games to injuries this season to players like Raigyne Moncrief, star freshman Ayana Mitchell, Jenna Deemer and Ann Jones. Then there’s the dismissal in June of Ballard, the chronically troubled senior guard, a sure-fire All-SEC performer and All-American candidate.
Fargas’ teams have been troubled by more than their share of personnel issues. One of her first star recruits, Krystal Forthan, shockingly quit the team after the 2011-12 season. Jeanne Kenney was constantly beset by freakish injuries. The entire 2012 recruiting class of Ballard, Derreyal Youngblood and Coco Baker was sent packing. How different might this season have been had those three remained and turned into productive seniors?
Nonetheless, Fargas is ultimately responsible for the productivity of her program no matter what, a program whose win total has dropped from 23 in 2011-12 to 22 to 21 to 17 to 10.
There has been little reason to question Fargas’ acumen as an on-court coach. Even in the midst of a dire season, her Lady Tigers played tough defense and always give a strong effort even — when down to six or seven scholarship players.
She helped mold Theresa Plaisance into a two-time All-SEC player and made LaSondra Barrett a player who could effectively play all five positions on the court.
Overall, recruiting must improve. Talent is the lifeblood of any college program, and the Lady Tigers have not had enough of it in Fargas’ tenure. Ballard was the only player who could have played on this year’s team who could have started on one of LSU’s Final Four teams.
That’s a tough standard to match, certainly, but Fargas herself knows the tradition of LSU women’s basketball as a foe and its coach.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to get LSU basketball back at elite level. In a position to cut down nets,” Fargas said. “That’s what I know.”
Back in 1995, after that 7-20 season, then-LSU coach Sue Gunter recommitted he efforts to making LSU basketball great again. Two years later, the Lady Tigers were 25-5 and back in the Sweet 16. Three years after that, LSU made it to the Elite Eight.
There is reason for similar optimism for 2016-17. Moncrief, Deemer and Mitchell are all expected to return healthy. LSU also brings back Alexis Hyder, an undersized but crafty forward in the mold of DeTrina White from the 2000 Final Eight team. Fargas is also bringing in some size and depth, and the losses of seniors Akilah Bethel, Ann Jones and Anne Pedersen won’t be major hits.
It’s said sometimes you have to tear down to build up again. LSU women’s basketball has hit rock bottom. It’s time to rebuild. And time for Fargas to prove that she can be the coach to lead the Lady Tigers to cutting down nets and putting up banners.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.