On the big checklist of potential achievements for the 2017-18 LSU basketball team, the big No. 1 is achieved.
“Winning season!” first-year LSU coach Will Wade exclaimed Tuesday night after his Tigers knocked off Vanderbilt 88-78. “Sixteen wins. How about that?”
It may sound to some as a minor milestone. But it’s important to remember LSU went 10-21 last season, at one point losing 15 straight games.
With three regular-season games and at least one in the Southeastern Conference tournament remaining, the worst the Tigers can do is finish 16-15.
Of course, at this point, they’re not shooting for the worst. They’re aiming for the best: an NCAA tournament bid.
It still seems a wish upon a distant star, and it is. LSU remains at No. 75 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI).
Not surprisingly, a home win over RPI No. 104 Vandy (now No. 111) did nothing to improve LSU’s stock.
Still, the Tigers possess an intriguing resume.
LSU has seven of what the NCAA now refers to as Quadrant 1 wins. Not content to merely rate how teams did against the top 50 or top 100, the NCAA now uses this convoluted metric, which includes home games against teams ranked 1-30 in RPI, neutral-site games for teams 1-50 and road games against teams ranked 1-75.
According to CBSSports.com, only four teams have more Quadrant 1 wins than LSU: Kansas (10), North Carolina (nine), Virginia and Villanova (eight each). LSU still has seven top-50 RPI wins, if you want to go the old-fashioned route.
SI.com’s Michael Beller wrote Tuesday that “there may be no more interesting team on Selection Sunday than LSU. At the very least, they have the most vexing bubble case at this stage of the season.”
Wade won’t say it, but getting the Tigers to the NCAA tournament is one of the goals for this season. It may be unreachable, but as late LSU football coach Bill Arnsparger said, reach for the moon and you’ll fall among the stars. In LSU’s case, stars would be a trip to the NIT.
The Tigers are at least in the NCAA conversation, surprisingly enough. It may bring unaccustomed pressure to bear on an LSU team that has no players with NCAA tournament or NIT experience. But that isn’t necessarily bad, Wade said.
“I’ve addressed it with the guys: ‘I won’t say it to put pressure on you, but pressure is a privilege.’ It beats the hell out of not playing for anything," Wade said.
“People want to have great seasons, but the key is, you’ve got to dig out big wins in late February. Are we going to be able to dig some of these things out? When we get on the big stage, can we do it? The answer early on was no, but we’ll see how it goes now. We’re more mature, but we’ll see.
“It’ll be good experience one way or another. We can learn from it or use it for next year. And next year maybe it’s not the same pressure. Maybe it’s a chance to be in the conference championship race. I don’t know what our odds are, but we need as many wins as possible. Certainly Saturday at Georgia is critical.”
LSU’s path is rocky. Road games at Georgia and South Carolina before a home finale with Mississippi State are games that the Tigers could sweep or get swept in. And then there’s noise to make in the SEC tournament.
The Tigers look like a more likely NIT prospect, ranked as a No. 4 seed by a website called NITbuckets.com. They aren’t even on the first four or next four out, according to NCAA bracket projections by ESPN.com or CBSSports.com.
Still, LSU is getting some love in the off Broadway bracket projections. A website called InsideTheHall.com has the Tigers in a No. 11-seed play-in game with St. Bonaventure. SBNation.com at least has LSU among its first eight out.
Whether or not the Tigers get in, it could be a good year for Louisiana teams overall.
In the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Southern is squarely in the NCAA picture (along with Grambling, which has won 11 in a row). ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Jaguars in an NCAA play-in game, which would require winning the SWAC tournament. Southern is tied for second at 10-5, two games back of Grambling.
Lunardi also has Nicholls State, which leads the Southland Conference at 12-2, in a play-in game. Southeastern Louisiana is just a half-game back.
UL-Lafayette leads the Sun Belt at 13-1; Lunardi has the Ragin’ Cajuns as a No. 12 seed in the East regional, while Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has them a No. 13 seed in South. The SBC is likely a one-bid league, meaning if the Cajuns don’t win their tournament, they will be in the NIT. A potential game with LSU looms as a distinct possibility.