Over the past three weeks, LSU coach Johnny Jones faced variations of the same basic question while his program crept closer to the .500 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
The premise was pretty basic: Would hitting the break-even mark in the SEC potentially position the Tigers (17-10, 8-8), who travel to Texas A&M (17-12, 7-9) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, for a National Invitation Tournament berth?
Often, Jones smirked and replied LSU’s primary intent was to improve its potential seeding ahead of a trip to Nashville, Tenn., next week for the SEC tournament.
However, sorting the matter out requires blocking out a substantial amount of time, and may be complicated further with a loss at Reed Arena.
Deciphering the Tigers’ seeding scenarios probably requires spreadsheet software, because a best-case scenario could slot LSU in the No. 6 seed, while losses to Texas A&M and Ole Miss — fighting for flagging chances at an NCAA tournament bid — would leave Jones’ group reeling on a three-game skid, stuck in the No. 11 seed and playing March 13.
If Jones is definitive about anything, it’s a desire to avoid having to potentially play five games in five days.
“You’re trying not to put yourself in position where you’re playing on that first night,” Jones said Monday.
“It’s going to be a challenge any game that you play in. We would just like to finish as high as we possibly can for regular conference play and preparation for the conference tournament.”
After a 13-point loss at Missouri on Saturday, LSU sits in the No. 9 slot, meaning it would face eighth-seeded Georgia (14-15, 8-8) in the opening round at noon March 14.
“It’s important, but it’s also about how you finish out,” Hickey said. “We’ve got to finish these next two games strong. We had an opportunity against Missouri, but we didn’t take advantage. We’ve got another game Wednesday we can take advantage of, get our rhythm going before Saturday.”
Texas A&M and Vanderbilt (13-15, 7-9) sit two games behind the Tigers and Bulldogs in a six team pack, including Arkansas and Tennessee, both at 9-7 in the SEC, of teams all within two games of each other. Any projection for the ultimate pecking order is futile until late Saturday night.
The conference’s relative parity, with no truly dominant team in the vein of Kentucky from last season, could set the table for a middle-seeded squad to reel off a run. If that’s the case, the difference between one or two seeds could be minimal.
“Just a few years ago, you had a team playing with a sense of urgency and their back to the wall in Georgia,” Jones said of the 2008 SEC tournament champions, who entered with a 4-12 league record. “This time of year, anything can happen. You just catch a hot team playing well at the right time, and you just hope that you’re that team.”
What is certain is a win against the Aggies would assure the Tigers don’t slip below the ninth seed because LSU would have a higher win percentage than the Commodores.
Granted, not every member of the LSU roster is parsing potential outcomes.
“I don’t pay much mind into the seeding,” guard Andre Stringer said. “My main focus is on Texas A&M. Hopefully we can win this one and the next one, and wherever we lie (in the standings) we’ll just go from there.”
Assuming, which is dangerous given the SEC’s parity, that LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vandy all split their final two games, then LSU would creep in to the No. 8 seed. And still face Georgia.
Put simply, a push further up the SEC seating chart requires help from the Volunteers, who reside on the cutline for an at-large NCAA tournament bid, and the Razorbacks.
For example, if LSU finds a way to sweep the Aggies and Rebels to finish at 10-8 in the SEC, the Tigers could climb as high as No. 6, but only if Arkansas and Tennessee each finish 1-1 to allow LSU to win a three-team tiebreaker with a higher overall win percentage.
“It’s going to be the most intense week for our league,” Stringer said. “We’ve got a lot of teams that are fighting with everything to get just one spot ahead. ... It’s very imperative. Every team is fighting for whatever they can get.”
But the trade-off would mean LSU plays in the final game Thursday, which tips off at 9 p.m. March 14, and would have to go at the same time March 15 if it advances to a quarterfinal.
Which raises the question: Does Jones have an optimal seeding to ensure LSU can have as favorable a schedule as possible if it wants to take off on a four-day run at Bridgestone Arena? Not really.
“When you are where we are right now, that really doesn’t matter,” Jones said. “You’re going to get you some rest time, and then you’re going to have to turn around. It’s going to be tough. It’s just going to be about managing your time, and your practice time.”
O’Bryant took the same tack.
“It’s something, as basketball players that were used to, jumping from game to game,” O’Bryant said. “We really don’t think about it. Having too much of a break hurts you.”
Escaping a meeting between the eighth- and ninth-seeded squads carries another advantage: avoiding a likely quarterfinal against No. 11 Florida.
The Gators (23-5, 13-3), who have already secured at least a share of the SEC regular-season title, still nurture hopes — however slim — of securing a No. 1 seed and preferential regional location in the NCAA tournament. A dominant run in Nashville wouldn’t hurt.
Yet broaching the topic of ducking a date with Florida isn’t palatable — at least vocally — to LSU.
“I want to face Florida — the best of the best,” Hickey said. “Winning that would show what we can do. We’re not going to run from a challenge. We’re going to lace them up, just like they lace them up.”
Besides, avoiding the Gators might just put LSU in the path of Alabama and Kentucky, which are tied for second place and the potential Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. The Wildcats and Crimson Tide are considered potential teams to be among the first four teams left out of the NCAA tournament, and victories in Nashville during a deep run could curb the risk of being left on the stoop.
“Everyone will be playing with a sense of urgency regardless of who that is,” Jones said. “If you’re playing somebody lower, they could be playing to extend their season, trying to survive and playing to get in some type of postseason play.”
And perhaps, it’s all for the best to avoid complexity when it comes to an approach next week.
“Just get on a roll,” O’Bryant said. “We just need to get a win the first day and don’t look back.”