Rabalais: LSU still can’t put games away

LSU toppled Mississippi State 92-81 at home Wednesday night in men’s basketball.

The Tigers beat the Bulldogs from the break like a rented Russian hockey goalie (what, comrade, too soon?) taking a 24-4 lead before State finally answered the cowbell and mounted a rally to stay within arm’s length in case LSU decided to take that arm and wrap it around its collective throat.

If Bulldogs guard Craig Sword hadn’t gone all Pete Maravich on the Tigers (33 points before fouling out with 2:35 left), it would have been worse. But LSU being LSU, the Tigers are going to truck with only so much success before they allow the other team to make things interesting.

Considering the early look of a blowout this game had, the final margin of victory ended up looking rather middling, but that doesn’t really matter. There is actually no such thing as a bad win. And for LSU at this point in the season, a win over a hapless foe like Mississippi State (now 13-13 and 3-10 in Southeastern Conference play) and the margin by which it was obtained have only so much significance.

The Tigers improved to 16-9 overall and nosed back over the .500 mark in SEC play to 7-6. That’s nice, but this win will do nothing to reinflate LSU’s NCAA tournament bubble.

Perhaps somewhat amazingly, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had LSU in his “next four out” of his NCAA tournament projection before this win. This after having the Tigers among his last four in before an 81-70 loss at Arkansas last Saturday.

All things considered, that’s pretty good for a team that came into the week with an RPI of 72 and was batting only .500 in a conference that gets only a shadow of the respect it’s earned in football (Lunardi had four SEC teams in this week: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee).

But really, this isn’t an NCAA tournament team. Not yet. The Tigers don’t play enough defense and commit way too many turnovers (16 against State, actually over the season average of 14.3) to be NCAA worthy.

Yes, LSU can make the NCAA selection committee sit up and take notice if the Tigers could complete a season sweep of No. 18-ranked Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington and somehow topple No. 2 Florida on the road on March 1.

But honestly, what has LSU done on the road this season to make anything think that is even remotely possible? The Tigers are an anemic 1-5 in SEC road games, the only win away against a South Carolina team that went into Wednesday’s play sharing the SEC basement duplex with Mississippi State. LSU’s only real NCAA hope is to make a Cinderella run through next month’s SEC tournament and trade their sneakers for the glass slipper that is the tournament’s NCAA automatic bid. Otherwise, the Tigers are probably NIT bound for the second time in three years and first time under second-year coach Johnny Jones.

Like a lot of you, I’ve wrestled between whether or not this LSU team should be labeled a disappointment. Certainly the Tigers were talked up as a potential NCAA tournament team coming into the season, possessing a roster with Johnny O’Bryant III, Jarrell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Anthony Hickey that was lauded as one of the four most talented in the SEC.

The production hasn’t matched the promise. But are the Tigers to blame? To pinch a line from “Julius Caesar,” the fault may well not be in LSU’s stars but in ourselves. The boast that the Tigers were ready to return to being prime-time players was from without, not within.

Winning is often about talent. It’s often about execution. But sometimes it’s about simply having a knack for experience, for believing you will figure out a way. That’s how Florida shook off a pesky Auburn team at home Wednesday night, rallying from an eight-point halftime deficit for a 71-66 victory.

The Gators are a senior-laden team coming off back-to-back trips to NCAA Elite Eights that knows how to win. That’s why they’re 24-2 and an unblemished 13-0 in SEC play. That’s why Florida is likely to be a No. 1 regional seed on Selection Sunday while LSU is packing its bags for an NIT trip to a current destination unknown.

After an early 20-point lead, LSU should have buried the Bulldogs by 30. The Tigers did not, or could not, in part because they don’t know how. Two years of modest success under Jones is not enough of a sample size by which to judge him, or his team, too harshly.

Maybe the Tigers will ignite in March and make that magical run. More than likely they have more muddled, middling, maddening games ahead of them. Sometimes up, sometimes down, making baby steps back toward the big time.