As LSU lost its fifth straight road game, an 81-70 defeat to Arkansas in Fayetteville, only a single question persisted about the Tigers’ chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
It’s obviously not a question of whether the Tigers will make the Big Dance, that’s been all but answered. Unless they win the Southeastern Conference Tournament and secure an automatic bid, the answer is a resounding no.
The better question is which of these eerily similar losses, each earmarked by slow starts, bad defense and foul trouble, actually delivered the kill shot to the Tigers’ March aspirations? And what caused such a promising season to expire prematurely?
Dr. James will now perform a post-mortem examination to determine cause of death.
The first two losses, Ole Miss and Alabama, were not fatal. Neither was ideal, but they were easier to accept because LSU has historically struggled in both Oxford and Tuscaloosa and both contests were hard-fought down to the bitter end.
There’s conclusive evidence the subject survived injuries suffered at Ole Miss and Alabama, and home victories against Kentucky and Arkansas further resuscitated the seemingly lifeless team. At that point, bracket projections from ESPN, CBS, SI.com and USA Today all had LSU among the final few teams in the tournament field.
But in hindsight, the setbacks at Ole Miss and Alabama were precursors for more serious symptoms yet to come.
After winning four of five games, LSU seemed like it had begun to figure it out. And because of the quality opponents it beat and the soft stretch of opponents coming up, it was reasonable to expect that success would continue once the Tigers left the PMAC.
The Feb. 6 loss to Georgia was actually the fatal blow to the Tiger’s season. LSU had finally gotten some momentum going for it, and losing a relatively uncompetitive game in a dead arena to a team that was 10-10 at the time killed all of it.
At first, the Georgia loss felt like an inconsequential speed bump for LSU because it beat Auburn two days later. There was some discomfort, but LSU remained squarely on the bubble in most projections, so the long-term damage seemed minimal.
But after similarly hard-to-watch losses in lopsided games at Texas A&M and Arkansas, it’s clear hitting that speed bump caused internal bleeding from which the subject never recovered.
It took a full week to feel the effects, and the subject’s vitals didn’t expire until the clock ran out in Fayetteville, but losing in Georgia was the trauma that began the tailspin.
Even if coach Johnny Jones and his players don’t want to admit it, after Georgia, the road woes grew from a doubt to a bugaboo to a full-fledged monster firmly planted in their heads.
And from there, each road game has become a self-fulfilling prophecy:
First start off cold offensively. Next dig a sizeable hole by playing lazy defense, then have some combination of the frontcourt get in early foul trouble. Give hope by making a spirited run early in the second half, before finally having the run fall short as the opponent pulls away.
It’s a tried and true method for losing basketball games on the road simple enough that a “For Dummies” book couldn’t explain it any better.
The official cause of death for this season will be recorded as severe internal damage caused by road-woes induced trauma.
The underlying cause is obvious to anyone who has seen LSU play — its defense doesn’t travel.
The Tigers have split 12 SEC games, going 5-1 at home and 1-5 on the road. Despite playing a significantly tougher schedule at home, the Tigers allow almost 10 more points per game away from the PMAC.
Defending the perimeter has been the most glaring issue. In those six SEC road games, LSU allowed its opponents to shoot a whopping 47.95 percent on 3-pointers. Considering all the length and athleticism LSU has, it clearly doesn’t play with the same defensive intensity on the road.
Even the most mediocre NCAA Tournament team would have finished the five road games LSU lost at 3-2, maybe 2-3 at the worst. The price of managing to lose all five is that the Tigers will find themselves in the NIT, at best.
James Moran is a 21-year-old mass communication senior from Beacon, N.Y.