NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the aftermath of an embarrassing blowout in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Saturday, LSU coach Johnny Jones said he believes the program is still going in the right direction overall.
With a 71-38 loss to top-seeded Texas A&M, fourth-seeded LSU saw its already slim NCAA tournament hopes end when the Tigers were outscored 32-5 in the final 13½ minutes of the first half.
A&M took a 35-13 halftime lead after LSU held an 8-3 advantage early and the second half was more of the same as the Tigers set several marks for futility — including the lowest shooting percentage in tournament history when they connected on just 20.6 percent of their shots from the field.
On his way to the locker room after Texas A&M piled on the points with LSU big men Ben Simmons and Craig Victor on the bench with foul trouble, Jones told ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake the Tigers had “great energy.”
Play-by-play man Brad Nessler said, “I like Johnny Jones as much as the next guy, but we have different definitions of energy.”
Then, legendary basketball analyst Dick Vitale noted how embarrassing it was that LSU was playing that way with its NCAA tournament hopes on the line while trying to make it to the SEC tournament title game.
By the end of the lopsided loss, Vitale’s opinion hadn’t changed when he called the Tigers’ effort “embarrassing, humiliating, embarrassing.”
As a result of a season-long struggle amid high expectations because of the presence of forward Ben Simmons, the top player in the nation last season, LSU (19-14) is likely headed for the NIT.
“Absolutely,” Jones said when asked after the game if the program is headed in the right direction. “At some point, you’re going to lose. Obviously, you don’t want games to unfold the way that it did today. We just didn’t make shots.
“Again, I thought we got off to a great start,” he said. “Our guys did a great job of playing hard early, and then we got stuck on nine (points) and couldn’t get things going.”
Jones pointed out that LSU led the SEC in field-goal percentage for a good portion of the season and was second in the league at 46.9 percent going into the tournament. The Tigers also led the conference in scoring at 80.0 points a game.
“It just wasn’t there today,” he said. “Shots just didn’t go down for us. We had good looks, we had shots around the rim, layups wouldn’t fall, tip-ins wouldn’t fall.”
Jones acknowledged Saturday that guard Antonio Blakeney, who was LSU’s best shooter in the final month of the regular season, had been ill since the team arrived for the tournament. Blakeney was 1-of-13 from the field for six points.
“Antonio had great effort Friday (in an 84-75 quarterfinals win over Tennessee) and great effort today … the shots just didn’t go down for him,” Jones said. “I’m sure he wasn’t feeling his best, but I praise him for at least trying to fight through it.”
Jones said even though it didn’t look good Saturday, the record speaks for itself with a chance to record a third consecutive 20-win season.
“I think you can look at our record … our record really speaks for itself in what these guys have been able to do and the way they’ve performed on the stage,” he said. “I can assure you the positives far outweigh the negatives.
“It’s not just one game that we look at. We look at the program, and we know how positive it is.”
While the NCAA tournament is always the goal, Jones said they’ll accept an NIT bid if one is extended.
Simmons said he never thought about playing in the NIT instead of the NCAA after coming to school as the top high school prospect in the nation.
“For me, I just wanted to play and do whatever I can to win for my team,” he said. “I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where the team was going to be. All I knew was we were going to go out and work hard and try to get better every day.”