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March 13, 2014

Last chance to salvage season

LSU basketball has not been a winning proposition in the Southeastern Conference in almost a quarter of a century.

In the 23 seasons since the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina, the Tigers have posted a winning conference record just six times - only once since the Final Four campaign of 2006.

LSU's record in the SEC tournament over this stretch has been worse. In just three of the last 22 tournaments have the Tigers won two games - 1993, 2002 and 2003. LSU's SEC title-winning squads in 2000, 2006 and 2009 all won only one tournament game.

That track record would indicate that the Tigers' 2014 season will come to an end at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta before the weekend arrives. LSU needs a tournament championship, which entails four consecutive victories, to reach the Big Dance.

Moreover, the Tigers need two or three victories to be given serious consideration for the NIT. LSU knows its schedule for Thursday and Friday. The Tigers will take on Alabama on Thursday night. With a victory, LSU will take on Kentucky in a quarterfinal matchup Friday night.

"It's a four-game season," Johnny O'Bryant said. "There is no sense of panic. Everybody's relaxed. We just have to play and win four games."

Most preseason predictions pegged the Tigers finish fourth in the conference race. LSU ended up in a three-way with Ole Miss and Missouri for sixth place. Due to tiebreakers, the Tigers are the No. 7 seed - behind Ole Miss and ahead of Missouri.

"We need to bounce back from the loss to Georgia for what we call the third season," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. "We had a successful regular season. We won 18 games in a tough conference. Having a non-losing season in the conference says something."

Jones expressed satisfaction with an 18-12 record, including 9-9 in the SEC. But, his players didn't view things in the same way. The older players on the team certainly felt that a bid to the NCAA tournament was a reasonable goal. Instead, the Tigers are in the same situation as last March.

"It's win or go home," Anthony Hickey said. "We have to win or we're going to be back in Baton Rouge. We can't talk about what we have to do. We have to go out and do it."

For the second consecutive season, LSU has a 9-9 record. But, the expectations were a little higher this season. The Tigers returned five of the six players who averaged at least 18 minutes per game last season - Hickey, Andre Stringer, O'Bryant, Shavon Coleman and Malik Morgan.

In addition, LSU brought in a top-ten recruiting class, which included top-100 players Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Tim Quarterman. There was good reason for the Tigers be picked to finish fourth behind Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"I want high expectations," Jones said. "I want something for our fans to be excited about. We had Johnny O'Bryant coming back and we had a solid recruiting class. I think we put the chemistry together. But, freshmen are still freshmen."

The regular-season matchup between LSU and Alabama gives a good picture of what has happened this season. The Tide, which averaged 65 points in SEC games, beat the Tigers 82-80 in Tuscaloosa. LSU has been a poor defensive basketball team.

"We have a lot more stability on offense this year," Stringer said. "The guards have done a good job knocking down shots and not turning the ball over. The bigs have done a good job rebounding and getting points in the paint.

"But, our defense as a team was better last year. There was more of a sense of urgency on the defensive end of the floor. That was the biggest different between this year's team and last year's team."

The Tigers allowed at least 77 points in ten of their 18 SEC games. LSU won only three of those ten contests. Winning begins on the defensive end of the floor. If the Tigers are going to make a run in this year's SEC tournament, there must be an abrupt change on defense.

"We have to rebound and play defense at the point of contact," Jones said. "To make a run in the tournament, the first game is important. It's important to be comfortable from the start. If you win, you have an advantage in the second game when you are playing a team which has not played."

Here are LSU's results in the SEC tournament beginning with the 1992 season.

1992: Beat Tennessee, lost to Kentucky (semifinals)
1993: Beat Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, lost to Kentucky (finals)
1994: Lost to Georgia (first round)
1995: Lost to Vanderbilt (first round)
1996: Lost to South Carolina (first round)
1997: Lost to Georgia (first round)
1998: Lost to Tennessee (first round)
1999: Lost to Florida (first round)
2000: Beat Vanderbilt, lost to Arkansas (semifinals)
2001: Beat Georgia, lost to Arkansas (quarterfinals)
2002: Beat Vanderbilt and Georgia, lost to Mississippi State (semifinals)
2003: Beat Arkansas and Florida, lost to Mississippi State (semifinals)
2004: Lost to South Carolina (quarterfinals)
2005: Beat Auburn, lost to Kentucky (semifinals)
2006: Beat Vanderbilt, lost to Florida (semifinals)
2007: Beat Tennessee, lost to Ole Miss (quarterfinals)
2008: Lost to South Carolina (first round)
2009: Beat Kentucky, lost to Mississippi State (semifinals)
2010: Lost to Tennessee (first round)
2011: Lost to Vanderbilt (first round)
2012: Beat Arkansas, lost to Kentucky (quarterfinals)
2013: Beat Georgia, lost to Florida (quarterfinals)



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