The LSU men’s basketball season is finally over, and frankly, aren’t you just a little relieved?
No more wondering which Tigers team would show up for any given game. No more fretting over how much potential they would ultimately fritter away.
In that regard, they saved their best for last.
In a No. 8 versus No. 9 NCAA tournament contest, which by their nature are the most even of matchups, LSU looked sleek, confident and dominant while posting a 21-6 closing sprint to take a 40-26 halftime lead on N.C. State. The Tigers even made the first basket of the second half to go up 16 points.
LSU led 60-48 with 10:22 left on a putback basket by Jarell Martin that turned out be the Tigers’ last. Of the season.
What followed was bricklaying of nation-building proportions, a melting glacier-like half of a half.
CLANK! The Tigers missed their last 12 field-goal attempts.
CLANK! The Tigers missed their last six free throws.
CLANK! N.C. State’s last shot also found the rim, but BeeJay Anya’s left hook was the lucky punch that put LSU’s lights out for the season, bouncing up then through with just 0.1 seconds left for a 66-65 win.
(This just in … The Tigers have just missed another field-goal attempt.)
The game displayed the Cliff’s Notes version of LSU’s season with painful perfection. So much beautiful basketball, so much breathtaking power — so much failure.
This was an LSU team without much depth, and that was a problem, especially when Jordan Mickey started suffering from anemia late in the season. But this also was an LSU team with much talent, a team that should have done better than it did.
(This just in … The Tigers have just missed two more free throws.)
By my rough estimate, LSU’s 22-9 regular-season record could have easily been four or five games better. It was not.
LSU should have beaten Auburn (in the regular season at home) and in the Southeastern Conference tournament and at least advanced to the SEC semis to take another crack at Kentucky. It did not.
LSU should have held onto its double-digit lead against N.C. State, or at least part of it, and be playing East No. 1 seed Villanova in Saturday’s round of 32. It could not.
(And we have another update … The Tigers have lost their luggage — and Josh Gray — at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.)
At halftime, CBS analyst Charles Barkley said he thought LSU was one of the 10 best teams in the NCAA tournament.
He was, like the Tigers themselves, half-right. LSU was one of the 10-best collections of talent in the tournament, all shiny chrome rims and a shimmering metallic paint job and a rumbling, throaty engine bursting with horsepower.
But once on the open road, the Tigers couldn’t complete a trip to the grocery store.
One of the NCAA’s tourney’s 10 best teams? Not hardly. This was never a good team in any regard.
“Championship teams find ways to win games,” LSU shortstop Alex Bregman said after his Tigers’ skin-of-their-teeth win Tuesday at Southern. “It doesn’t have to be the prettiest.”
This LSU basketball “team” had no leadership. Over and over again it looked like a bunch of guys playing a pickup game. If things went well, super. If they didn’t — CLANK! The Tigers seemed to operate with all the urgency of a turtle crossing the road. (Maybe I’ll make it; maybe I’ll get squashed by a Camry — or Missouri.)
LSU coach Johnny Jones will get tractor trailer-sized loads of blame for the Tigers’ NCAA flameout — some deserved, some best reserved for his players. Even the most ardent Jones critic must admit that the program has made progress on his watch. Incremental, turtle-like at times, but progress.
The Tigers went 19-12 two years ago (9-9 SEC) and no postseason bid.
LSU went 20-14 last year (again 9-9 SEC) and won an NIT game.
LSU went 22-11 this season (11-7 SEC) and returned to NCAA play for the first time since 2009.
Next year, LSU needs not to inch forward, but make a leap With prep player of the year Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, transfer Craig Victor and perhaps Jackson, Mississippi, phenom Malik Newman, LSU should be one of the top two or three most talented teams in the SEC. If either Mickey (who should stay) or Martin (who I suspect will go) returns, the Tigers have the making of a top-10 preseason squad.
It’s on Jones to make this a good team. He has shown he can hang big-time talent on the walls like impressionist paintings. Now he has to show he can lead a leap to the big time, to being an SEC contender and a top-four NCAA regional seed at least.
Whether Jones can do that is still unknown. He needs a band leader, and that could be the hard-working Keith Hornsby, who returns for his senior campaign. Hornsby should grab this LSU team by a, ahem, sensitive region, and say, “Let’s play my way, all out, all the time.”
The opportunity awaits LSU to again become a team, a real team, to be reckoned with on the national stage. Let’s see if the Tigers can maximize their potential, not squander it.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.