For LSU, win or lose, all that matters is the next game
NASHVILLE – Go ahead.
Make your list of reasons why SEC regular season champion LSU’s stay here in the league’s tournament ended practically before it started, a 76-73 quarterfinals loss to Florida sending the Tigers packing.
Let’s start with the fact Florida, now 19-14, desperately needed a win (especially over a top 10 ranked team) to boost its NCAA tournament resume. The Tigers, 26-6, didn’t necessarily need the victory to bolster their postseason chances and with the loss still won’t be worse than a No. 3 seed.
“They made one more play than we did when it counted,” said LSU forward Naz Reid of Florida guard Andrew Nembhard’s game-winning 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left.
Then there’s the ongoing circus involving the absence of LSU coach Will Wade, who remains suspended by university officials for his refusal to meet with them about his alleged role in a federally-investigated recruiting scandal.
“We understand everything that’s going on around us,” Tigers’ guard Tremont Waters said. “But basketball is basketball. We handle what’s in front of us.”
There was the “will he play or won’t he play” status of Tigers’ freshman guard Javonte Smart, benched last Saturday by LSU officials for possibly being linked to Wade’s alleged recruiting indiscretions.
“It's a lot on your mind,” Smart admitted after being reinstated two hours before Saturday’s noon tip. “He (God) gave me the chance to come out here and help my guys.”
Finally, LSU being whistled for 14 more fouls and attempting 15 fewer free throws than the Gators is a head-shaker that certainly didn’t help the Tigers.
“The game is called way it was called,” LSU guard Skylar Mays said. “We’ve been put in situations like that before and we’ve succeeded.”
But what most people don’t understand about this team is they take to heart the mantra that champions don’t look for reasons when they fail.
Because in defeat, reasons sound like excuses.
Such wishy-washy justifications aren’t part of the stealth mental makeup of the 11th SEC championship squad in LSU history that’s one of college basketball’s best stories this season despite the week-long Wade soap opera.
“Just gotta take it on the chin, move forward, just know that we’re still a great team,” Waters said after Saturday’s loss. “Every game isn’t going to go our way, calls aren’t going to always go our way.
“We’ve just got to stay together, play through each other and keep pushing. We’re a family and we’re not going to let anyone break us.”
The maturity of this team, with just one healthy senior (who transferred a year ago and is playing his first season with the Tigers) and an almost-entirely new roster, is hard to fathom.
It’s handled tragedy, the late September murder of teammate Wayde Sims. It’s managed to ignore the swirl of national blowback from being caught in the middle of Wade and LSU administrators fighting it out in public via released statements.
Consider just those two things and understand something like not getting to the free throw line enough or hitting cold spells in games are blips on this squad’s mental radar.
“This team has character,” said Mays, the Tigers’ quiet brainiac, whose monster dunk over a backpedaling Florida defender may have been LSU’s most showstopping moment in Friday's loss. “Great character. We’ll bounce back from this and try and make this big run (in the NCAA Tournament).”
Between now and when the brackets are announced Sunday at 5 p.m. on CBS, there will be much gnashing and wailing from Tigers’ fans if LSU drops from a projected No. 2 seed to No. 3 because of the quick SEC Tourney exit.
As for the team, all it needs is a scouting report, a plane ticket and a tipoff time.
“We’ve been focused all year from the very first day,” Waters said.
Point these Tigers in the right direction and turn them loose. They want to dance through March Madness as long as possible.