BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Flying under the radar is nothing new to Nikki Fargas and her LSU women’s basketball team.
The Lady Tigers did it a year ago when they were picked to finish seventh in the Southeastern Conference race and went on to tie for fourth with an 11-5 mark in the league, which helped them earn an NCAA tournament berth.
So when LSU was chosen to finish ninth by a media panel, it really wasn’t such a big deal to the Lady Tigers’ eighth-year head coach — as long as her team exceeds the expectations.
“We’ve flown under the radar since I’ve been here,” a relaxed Fargas said when she met with reporters at SEC media days on Thursday. “I don’t think that we have been picked higher. The thing I can tell you is we've consistently finished higher than where we were picked.
“I think the polls, they’re just what they are. I’ll bring the polls up (with the team) at the appropriate time. For now, we’re excited to be healthy and practicing at a high level.”
During her time at LSU, that hasn’t always been the case.
It’s more important than ever after the Lady Tigers lost their top two scorers in Chloe Jackson and Raigyne Louis, who combined for more than half of the team’s offensive production of 66.3 points per game.
Jackson unexpectedly transferred to Baylor and Louis completed her eligibility, which might have convinced the voters to drop LSU a couple of notches in the preseason poll.
Ayana Mitchell, a 6-foot-2 junior forward who averaged 11.0 points and 8.2 rebounds, is the top returning player for the Lady Tigers.
Like Fargas, she’s ready to prove they shouldn’t be picked that low.
“I think we’re capable of doing it again,” Mitchell said. “The SEC is a tough conference, but I like the way we’ve worked this summer. We have brought in some really good junior college players, so we’re definitely a team that everyone will have to look out for.”
Her confidence comes from the fact that Fargas and her team are expecting to see some improvement from their perimeter shooters after shooting a league-low 26.3 percent from 3-point range last season.
Better shooting from beyond the arc could help take some pressure off the post players like Mitchell and Faustine Aifuwa, who joined Fargas and Mitchell at media day Thursday.
Mitchell said the Lady Tigers started shooting better late last season, but it will be important to keep making strides in that phase of their game.
“We brought in some people that can definitely shoot it from that range,” she said. “We haven’t shot the ball for a high percentage, but that will help me and Faustine down in the paint if we can do that.
“We still have to focus on what we do best, and that’s defense. If we can hold people to under 50 points, that’s what we want.”
“We do have more players on our roster who can knock down the 3,” she said. “They’ve gotten in the gym and the green light is there for them right now ... as long as we consistently defend the 3-ball.
“We made four a game last year and held the opponents to four, which kind of cancelled each other out. If we can get six a game on offense, that would be a great number for us.”
One of the new players talked about was guard/forward Mercedes Brooks, who can shoot from outside and also play down low if needed. Joining her from the junior-college ranks are guards LaToya Ashman and Karli Seay.
“I like that they bring some experience having played in the junior college world,” Fargas said. “It’s been tough because they haven’t been exposed to this or pushed to the limit, but they haven’t quit and they haven’t been negative about anything.
"They’re going to be difference-makers for us.”