LSU coach Johnny Jones no longer needed to be coy when asked for his likely reaction to an observer forecasting the regular season finish in his first season.
“Hug them,” Jones said after an 81-67 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday. “Give them a big hug.”
After being picked to finish 11th in the preseason, the Tigers (18-11, 9-9) reaching the .500 mark in the Southeastern Conference and snaring a No. 9 seed heading into the conference tournament Thursday is a measure of relief during a final week where potential existed for chaotic fluctuations in the standings.
Yet the seeding picture in the SEC remained relatively pedestrian after Saturday.
On Monday, LSU sat in the ninth place, slated to face eighth-place Georgia. That’s exactly how it remained, and the Tigers meet the Bulldogs (15-16, 9-9) at noon Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
A victory would set-up a meeting with top-seeded Florida in the quarterfinals. It’s the same as last season, when the Tigers were a No. 8 seed and lost to eventual national champion Kentucky after beating Arkansas.
“Every team is 0-0 now,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “It’s a whole new season, so we’re ready to put it in front of us. We’re going to be ready to play.”
Granted, the pairing wasn’t set until Alabama guard Trevor Releford swished a half-court shot as the horn sounded to give the Crimson Tide a 61-58 victory.
It arranges a rematch of a 67-58 loss on Jan. 19 for the Tigers, who were locked in a 54-54 tie before a three-point play by Donte Williams with 3:09 left to play put Georgia ahead for good.
And a reunion with Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a potential SEC player of the year, who scored 22 points in the victory over the Tigers.
“It’s a team that I think we’ve got a chance to matchup up with pretty well,” Jones said. “They’ve got some active guys inside, then they’ve got an unbelievable scorer, like we saw today, that’s just extremely tough to guard. So it will be a great matchup and one we look forward to.”
The rest of the seedings didn’t incur much of a shift, though.
No.11 Florida (24-6, 14-4) lost at Kentucky on Saturday, but the Gators secured the top seed with a victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
The victory assured the Wildcats (21-10, 12-6) the No. 2 seed despite a three-way tie with Ole Miss (23-8, 12-6) and Alabama (20-11, 12-6). UK will play the winner of seventh-seeded Arkansas (19-12, 10-8) and No. 10 seed Vanderbilt (14-16) 8-10 in the quarterfinals Friday.
The Rebels are the No. 3 seed by virtue of a head-to-head win over Alabama, which falls to No. 4 but still earns the last of the tournament’s double-byes.
Meanwhile, Tennessee (19-11, 11-7) secured the No. 5 seed with a victory Saturday over Missouri (22-9, 11-7). The Volunteers await the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 12 seed South Carolina (14-17, 4-14) and No. 13 seed Mississippi State (9-21, 4-14).
Missouri awaits the winner of Wednesday’s match-up between No. 11 seed Texas A&M (17-14, 7-11) and No. 14 seed Auburn (9-22, 3-15).
Given the close proximity of squads in the final pairings, Jones hinted the bracket might not hold to form over five days, either.
“There are teams that are really good,” Jones said. “You look at Ole Miss and they way they’re playing. Florida is a very good solid team. Missouri has got a deep bench. Those teams are good, but there’s more out there.