High above the court in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, five NCAA Women’s Final Four banners hang from the catwalk.
They represent the pinnacle of the Lady Tigers’ women’s basketball achievements.
They also are a curse if you will, a constant reminder of the glory that was Rome, and what Rome no longer is.
Most days during the recent seasons, those banners look down on all but a few hundred filled seats when the LSU women take the court. And they would not recognize a pair of scissors brought out to snip down nets, like Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles and Temeka Johnson used to do.
With the exception of one injury- and dismissed player-plagued season in 2015-16, LSU women’s basketball hasn’t been bad under coach Nikki Fargas. Off-the-court issues have been few, and this year’s Academic Progress Rate of 994 followed two straight years of perfect 1,000 scores, a highly commendable batting average.
But the on-court results hardly have been great. And greatness for the Lady Tigers seems to be vanishing toward the horizon with each passing season.
Since coach Van Chancellor led LSU to the last of those five consecutive Women’s Final Fours in 2008 (he was sent packing after the 2010-11 season despite averaging 20 wins over his final three seasons), the Lady Tigers have made two Sweet 16 appearances under Fargas. The last of those was in 2014. That was also the last year LSU even won an NCAA tournament game.
Fargas is 148-106 at LSU overall, 66-62 in SEC play. That would be adequate at a number of programs. But when former SEC women’s basketball doormats like Mississippi State and South Carolina have played for and won national championships this decade, it is not adequate for LSU. Nor should it be. This is the program built up by a Naismith Hall of Famer in Sue Gunter, a program that thrived under future Hall of Famers like Augustus and Fowles, multiple All-Americans who went on to win WNBA titles and Olympic gold medals.
LSU doesn’t have to produce All-Americans this season or win the SEC or reach the Final Four to be successful. But the Lady Tigers have to be better, or Fargas might be occupying a hot seat. They must be better than last year, anyway, when LSU went 16-13 overall and 7-9 in SEC play, then declined a WNIT bid.
In the hierarchy of LSU athletics, women’s basketball is down the list. According to my unscientific poll, there is is football, baseball, men’s basketball and then, I would argue, gymnastics and softball before you get to women’s basketball. Maybe. Given the excitement and pride LSU fans felt over record-breaking pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis last year, put track and field ahead of women’s hoops in the pecking order.
Be that as it may, LSU fans expect women’s basketball to be a contender. Most of them are never going to live and die with the sport, but they want a team that is in the mix.
The preseason SEC coaches and media polls don’t think the 2019-20 Lady Tigers will be quite there. The coaches put the Lady Tigers eighth, while the media poll at SEC Media Day put LSU eighth. The Lady Tigers just avoided being a first-day team in last season's SEC tournament as a No. 9 seed, and it’s vital that they do so again.
On balance, being picked eighth may be underselling LSU a bit. The Lady Tigers should have one of the SEC’s best frontcourts in all-conference forward Ayana Mitchell and 6-foot-5 center Faustine Aifuwa, and there is a serious infusion of fresh talent in the backcourt with Miss Louisiana Basketball Tiara Young from Shreveport via Walker, and Domonique Davis from DeRidder.
It may be harsh to say LSU and Fargas’ fate may come down to whether or not they can advance in the NCAA tournament. But the goal of adding another Final Four banner to the catwalk is still the objective, and at some point the Lady Tigers have to get closer to making that climb.