Taking stock of the LSU women’s basketball program has not been an easy task under coach Nikki Fargas.
Aside from one injury-ravaged season in 2015-16 — one that coincided with the preseason dismissal of Danielle Ballard, the Lady Tigers’ best player that year — LSU went in the NCAA tournament in Fargas’ other six seasons, including two trips to the Sweet 16.
The program’s graduation rate (93 percent) is one of the best on campus. LSU fought through a deep Southeastern Conference to finish fourth this spring with an 11-5 record, its best conference mark under Fargas. And there certainly has not been anything approaching the kind of off-the-court scandal that led to former coach Pokey Chatman’s stunning departure on the eve of the 2007 NCAA tournament.
But under Fargas, the program also has not experienced the type of greatness it had from 1997-2008, when the Lady Tigers reached five straight Final Fours, reached the Sweet 16 three other times and won three Southeastern Conference regular-season titles and one SEC tournament.
Fargas is LSU’s second-winningest coach (132-93) behind only the late Naismith Hall of Famer Sue Gunter, but her winning percentage of .587 is lower than any of LSU’s full-time coaches with the exception of Barbara Swanner (.533), Gunter’s predecessor.
LSU has won no SEC titles. Meanwhile, South Carolina and Mississippi State — programs that until recently could not hold a candle to the Lady Tigers — have zoomed past them. South Carolina won the national title under Dawn Staley last year, and State has been two straight national finals under Vic Schaefer.
LSU went winless in its last three NCAA tournament appearances — a first for the Lady Tigers.
After LSU returned home from its season-ending NCAA loss to Central Michigan in Columbus, Ohio, the program saw two surprising departures. On April 5, veteran coach Mickie DeMoss, recently inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, announced she was leaving Fargas’ staff after just two seasons to move into semi-retirement, possibly consulting.
Tuesday, much more surprising, was the news that Chloe Jackson will transfer for her senior season.
Both departures are blows to LSU — particularly Jackson in the short term. She was the Lady Tigers’ leading scorer in at 18.1 points per game. Her loss, along with the graduation of second-leading scorer Raigyne Louis, is a lot for the Lady Tigers to absorb going into 2018-19. Reserve forward Tatum Neubert is also leaving.
LSU’s backcourt is not bare. Point guard Jaelyn Richard-Harris returns, as do Khayla Patterson and Shanice Norton, key role players this season. Former Cabrini standout Rakell Spencer, a transfer from Texas A&M, will likely be get significant playing time if not an immediate starting role.
LSU has size and talent inside with Ayana Mitchell, its top-returning scorer and rebounder at 11.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, along with 6-6 Yasmine Bidikuindila, 6-5 Faustina Aifuwa and 6-4 Raven Farley. But LSU’s returning guards will have to prove their worth to keep teams from packing their defenses inside against the Lady Tigers.
Then there's this: Fargas is entering the final season of her contract, a contract last amended in July 2014. Perhaps Fargas will be in line for an extension during the offseason, but it is an unusual situation in college athletics. Even reasonably successful coaches like Fargas often have their contracts regularly rolled over to keep two or three seasons on the books.
As for recruiting, LSU is in the running for the state’s top two players for 2019, both guards ranked in ESPN’s top 60: Shreveport Evangel guard Tiara Young (No. 26) and Loranger guard JaMya Young (No. 39). Landing even one of them could also help mitigate the loss of Jackson.
Fargas is an excellent tactician on the court and laudably has done much to make herself, her staff and her players vital parts of the community through their volunteerism. She is by many accounts a tough disciplinarian, it's not fair to say LSU women’s basketball has fallen into disrepair under her watch.
But an SEC title or a trip back to the Women’s Final Four continue to look like long climbs for LSU right now. It appears that this is an important season in Fargas' tenure — a season made tougher by the losses of players like Jackson and Louis, and a great coaching asset like DeMoss.