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Is LSU Ready to End its NCAA Tournament Drought?

Jordan Mickey

Jordan Mickey

NASHVILLE — No result would have been more typical of LSU basketball than losing at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, the Tigers defeated Florida with surprising ease, ending the Gators’ 20-game home winning streak with a 79-61 win.

This season, the Tigers have been capable of this sort of thing during the last two seasons of Johnny Jones’ tenure but sustaining momentum has not been the strong suit of this particular group of Tigers.

LSU built an 11-2 record in the non-conference, including a 74-73 win at West Virginia ... only to open SEC play with an overtime loss to rebuilding Missouri.

The Tigers bounced back to beat NCAA contenders Georgia and Ole Miss ... only to blow and 11-point lead at home to lose to Texas A&M.

The trend for LSU would have been to follow up the statement win over Florida with a loss to a Vanderbilt team that had defeated just one SEC opponent this season. 

Any team looking to be taken seriously as an NCAA contender couldn’t afford three slip ups like this in the first 16 days of SEC play.

“We knew we had to get this win somehow,” LSU freshman guard Jalyn Patterson said.

A win at Vanderbilt won’t make or break LSU’s NCAA Tournament hopes, but Jones has a team that’s keeping itself in contention.

The Tigers started the week as one of seven SEC in the top 50 of the RPI, as one of five SEC teams in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket projection, and as one of four SEC teams in Jerry Palm’s.

Like many SEC teams, LSU seems to be teetering one way or another, from a team that’s potentially second only to Kentucky in the SEC to a team that’s going to land in the NIT. Sometimes in the course of a few possessions.

Against Vanderbilt, LSU trailed for almost the entire second half before rallying in the final 3:39. The momentum continued with two quick baskets and a lead to start overtime only to be undone by two passes out of bounds to the same spot on the court.

And earlier in the game, LSU drew three quick fouls from Damian Jones, Vanderbilt’s top player who ended up playing only eight minutes in the first half.

LSU responded to that bit of good fortune with a five-point halftime deficit.

“We got Damian in early foul trouble we felt we should have kept going to the basket and getting easy layups,” forward Jordan Mickey said. “We didn’t make some shots and we didn’t get some calls. We should have taken advantage of that but we didn’t.”

On paper, LSU’s back-to-back SEC wins on the road — at two of the league’s toughest venues — would seem to be a positive. But those sorts of developments show why Jones will be sweating the NCAA Tournament all the way to the end.

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Jones has a team that will turn the ball over 19 times and allow Vanderbilt role players Luke Kornet and Wade Baldwin IV to score a combined 40 points.

But he also has a team that will take two charges in the final minutes, as Martin did, and deflect a pass just enough to get a stop on the defensive end, as Tim Quarterman did on Vanderbilt’s final possession.

“They’re continuing to grow up,” Jones said. “It’s not perfect for us, and we certainly have a long way to go. We’re making some strides.”

A year ago, LSU started the season 9-2 but finished on an 11-13 skid. A team good enough to beat Kentucky on Jan. 28 couldn’t win back-to-back games come February. Nowhere were LSU’s consistency woes more apparent than away from Baton Rouge where the Tigers went 2-7 in SEC road games.

Even a year later, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise LSU is as inconsistent as it is.

The Tigers tantalize with two NBA prospects in the frontcourt in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. Guard play, essential to making runs in conference play and in March, has been spotty.

Before the season, LSU jettisoned point guard Anthony Hickey, who transferred to Oklahoma State, and replaced him with well-traveled junior college transfer Josh Gray. Gray hasn’t been the perfect fix, either. He turns the ball over 3.5 times per game (compared to 4.8 assists).

Getting the ball consistently to LSU's talented big men has been a two-year long struggle.

At the start of Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, another deficiency was clear — 3-point shooting. The Commodores had little reason to respect LSU’s perimeter game, which started 1-of-7 from 3-point range. That allowed Vanderbilt to clog the lane and hold LSU to 11-of-26 from 2-point range.

LSU didn’t really heat up until its emerging guards — Quarterman and Patterson  — did in the second half against Vanderbilt. The sophomore Quarterman is averaging 14.2 points per game in SEC play after averaging 2.5 points per game all of last season. Junior guard Keith Hornsby, a transfer from UNC Asheville, is averaging 17.5 points per game on the road where LSU has defeated West Virginia, Ole Miss, Florida and Vanderbilt.

When all the pieces are in place, LSU has the outside game to keep opposing teams honest in the defensive end.

“Our post guys realize what a great nucleus they have around them and our perimeter guys understand what kind of impact our post guys can have,” Jones said. “We’re sharing the basketball. “

And maybe now, all the pieces are starting to come together for a program on the cusp of making noise in the SEC and the national stage.

After starting SEC play with four road games in the first six, this is when LSU should start racking up wins and tidying up its NCAA resume. LSU's next four games are against South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama with only a trip to Starkville coming on the road.

LSU still has 12 SEC games to figure out if its NCAA Tournament material or not. And after that, the Tigers expect to add five-star prospects Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney.

Will the two stud freshmen join a program starting to deliver on its promise or a program reeling from another disappointing season?

“We were better than what we showed,” Mickey said. “But that’s in the past.”