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March 19, 2014
LSU coach Johnny Jones referred to the NIT as "the tournament that everyone wanted to go to."
However, the NIT had that reputation long before Jones was born, much less any of the players on this Tigers team. Motivation is an obvious question when LSU visits San Francisco in a first-round NIT game Wednesday night.
Three Tigers players - Andre Stringer, Anthony Hickey and Johnny O'Bryant - saw action in their last NIT appearance two seasons ago. LSU traveled to Eugene where it was whipped 96-76 by Oregon. A quick turnaround and a long trip to the West Coast was not the best preparation for a team.
"It's a long flight out there," O'Bryant said. "You have to try to get as much sleep as possible. We let Oregon have a good start my freshman year. They shot the ball well and beat us off the glass.
"I was excited that these seniors get to play again. I would like to keep their careers going. I have to try to get the other guys excited."
Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman are the two seniors on this LSU team. Stringer, who suffered an injury against Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals, admitted that he is enthused with getting a second chance of playing.
"I am so excited to continue my season," Stringer said. "Hopefully, it will be for a couple of more times. This has been a really down time for me (since Friday). I was sad thinking about that being my last game. I was crushed.
"Now, I am excited just for the mere fact that I'll get to put the uniform on again. No injury will hold me back from playing. I'm a little banged up, but I'll play through it. I'll be fine."
The LSU players have not hidden the fact that the NCAA tournament was its goal. After defeating Arkansas on Feb. 1, the Tigers had a 14-6 record, 5-3 in the SEC. However, LSU lost seven of its next 12 games. Not once during that stretch did the Tigers put together consecutive victories.
As a result, LSU has to wait for a NIT bid, which it received Sunday night. The Tigers were the lowest seeded of four SEC teams in the tournament.
"I wanted the NCAA," Hickey said. "But, things happen and they didn't go our way. At least, we are in the NIT. This was a big step for us - getting into a tournament. We had a bad experience at Oregon. We got beat pretty bad. We have a chance to go to New York (City) if we win out."
It would take the Tigers three victories to win the SMU quadrant and advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The winner of the LSU-San Francisco game will play either SMU or Cal-Irvine in the second round.
"We didn't make a tournament last year and we are in the NIT this year," freshman Jordan Mickey said. "I am excited to play another game with these guys. We get to play a different team outside of our conference."
The Tigers have a 9-3 record against non-conference opponents this season. Only three of those games came against teams in the postseason. LSU defeated St. Joseph's and lost to Massachusetts and Memphis. All three of those teams reached the NCAA tournament.
LSU's recent history in the NIT has not been good. The Tigers have a 1-3 record in their three trips to the NIT in the last 13 years. The lone LSU victory came at Iowa in 2002. Besides the loss at Oregon, the Tigers dropped a first round game at Oklahoma (2004) and against Ball State at the PMAC (2002).
"We are disappointed that we fell short of the NCAA tournament," Jones said. "The NIT gives our guys the opportunity to compete for a championship. A senior-dominated team which has been in the NCAAs may not have the same motivation (for the NIT).
"We have guys who have never been in the NCAAs. They get a chance to continue playing and leave their mark. It helps for next year when you get in postseason play. Survive and advance or your season is over. You have to play with an edge. That can help when you play in the postseason again."
San Francisco is an offense-dominated team like LSU. The Dons, who average 75 points per game, are shooting 48 percent from the field, including 37 percent on 3-pointers. The top performer for San Francisco is 6-7 forward Cole Dickerson, who is contributing 15 points and eight rebounds per game.
The Dons lost six of their seven games against teams in the NCAA tournament with the one victory coming against Vermont. San Francisco lost three times to BYU and twice to Gonzaga - teams from the West Coast Athletic Conference who are in the Big Dance.