Rabalais: LSU men aren’t great, but they’re pretty good

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- LSU's Shavon Coleman is blocked by a Mississippi State player in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- LSU's Shavon Coleman is blocked by a Mississippi State player in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2013.

They recognized LSU’s 1952-53 squad at halftime of Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the team which made the Tigers’ first run to the Final Four before it was even called the Final Four.

There is little chance anyone will ever mention this 2012-13 LSU team in the same breath as the team of Bob Pettit and Ned Clark. That bunch 60 years ago stamped its greatness on a banner that will hang as long as the Pete Maravich Assembly Center has rafters. This team is trying to make the transition from scruffy to good, with great somewhere long down the line.

But perhaps that transition is moving along faster than expected, certainly faster than it looked back in January when LSU started Southeastern Conference play in a smoking 0-4 crater.

Saturday at the PMAC, the Tigers did what good teams do: They beat the dog (pun intended) out of outmanned Mississippi State.

The final 80-68 score doesn’t reflect the true nature of the Tigers’ dominance in this one — or the disparity of a program on the rise (LSU) and a program that is a shell of its recent former self (State).

This LSU team is still much the work in progress. So while the Tigers were able to stick the fork in the Bulldogs fairly early in the second half — going up 20 for the first time on a top-of-the-key 3-pointer by Shavon Coleman with 11 minutes to go — they were able to let State wriggle back into hailing distance a few times.

Again, this team isn’t going to get folks to stand up in their seats 60 years from now and give an ovation, but it’s a start. And from where LSU began SEC play, with as much forward momentum as the Carnival Triumph drifting through the gulf, to stand at 15-8 overall and 6-6 in conference play, the Tigers look to be ahead of the curve.

“The guys have done a tremendous job continuing to grow as a team and as individuals,” first-year LSU coach Johnny Jones said.

“We had a chance when we started 0-4 to hit the panic button, but we never did that. What was important to us was the next practice and the next game and improving.”

Right now, LSU is an NIT team, a respectable plateau for a program trying to return to the glory days of reaching two Final Fours and two regional finals between 1980 and 1987.

But the Tigers have to keep winning. Beating State at home was a glorified scrimmage compared to Tuesday’s game at Tennessee, which Saturday afternoon deboned a Nerlens Noel-less Kentucky team 88-58. LSU is then home for Alabama and Arkansas, is at Missouri and Texas A&M and home to face Ole Miss.

A 3-3 split gets LSU to 18 wins even before the SEC tournament. LSU went to the NIT at 18-14 last year, so this is doable. If LSU can snap off another upset, then the Tigers can go 4-2 the rest of the way and take 19 wins to Nashville, with the heretofore unimaginable prospect of being a 20-win team come Selection Sunday.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Saturday, LSU was good, and that’s close enough to great for now.