LSU basketball’s next challenge: Prove it with this schedule

LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant III (2) fights for a rebound with Nemanja Djurisic (42) of Montenegro in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Southeastern Conference men's tournament  in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, March 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Show caption
LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant III (2) fights for a rebound with Nemanja Djurisic (42) of Montenegro in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Southeastern Conference men's tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, March 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the LSU men’s basketball team fills folding chairs on the court.

Behind them, fans fill the lower bowl, a dull roar of chatter filling tense air. The Tigers, donning purple track pants and T-shirts, and coach Johnny Jones try to relax before peering up at a video screen dangling overhead.

As CBS’ Greg Gumbel ticks off the names of 68 programs, he includes three letters: L-S-U, ending the Tigers’ four-year absence from the NCAA tournament.

“It’s something we talk about all the time in the locker room,” senior guard Andre Stringer said. “It’s just something we need to do.”

The catch is that Stringer uttered that sentiment this week — a full four months ahead of Selection Sunday and roughly a week before LSU tips off Wednesday against Xavier of New Orleans in an exhibition game at the PMAC.

Some prognosticators have pegged the Tigers, who are coming off a 19-12 season and were picked to finish fourth in the SEC, as a possible tournament team with the proper elements for landing a berth: a star, a knot of veterans, an influx of talent and depth in a still-weak power conference.

But just how realistic is it for the Tigers to nab a bid with a relatively thin nonconference schedule before an 18-game slate in the nation’s weakest power conference?

“With me, LSU still has a ton of uncertainty surrounding their future,” said Ken Pomeroy, who operates the advanced statistics website KenPom.com. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they got an at-large berth. They certainly have the makeup on their roster to be able to get there.”

Still, Pomeroy’s initial numbers, which he admits are heavily influenced by data from previous seasons, project LSU as a 17-11 squad and a .500 team in the SEC. In essence, the Tigers, who have snagged votes in preseason polls, are barely on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Jones, ever keeping his cards close to his vest, couches tournament talk, too.

“We don’t talk about this every day, and not through me,” he said. “(The players) may talk about it amongst themselves to know how much hard work it takes to get there. I think they feel like this team is built to make it.”

The Tigers’ nonconference schedule leaves ample elbow room for debate. If you read off the list of foes, Pomeroy’s analysis is blunt.

“That sounds like more a schedule that serves the purpose of building confidence of a young team,” he said, “and not so much for building the résumé of a tournament team.”

Jones admits he wishes he had more time to tinker and figure out just what he has on his hands.

“We kind of wish we had something more in place like the NBA so we can have (more) exhibition games in place,” Jones said. “We will be challenged, and we are hopeful that we are at a certain point prior to conference play.”

The season opener at Massachusetts on Nov. 12 is a solid road test, considering the Minutemen are coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, were picked fourth in the Atlantic 10 and likely are a bubble team.

“It’s going to be a tough game getting out of there,” junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “Guys are always hungry for that first game. They’ve been going against each other the whole summer.”

Notching a quality win gets dicey after that. Jones has pointed to a Thanksgiving weekend trip to the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., as such a chance.

If LSU gets by Saint Joseph’s, there’s a potential matchup with No. 13 Memphis. Knock off those Tigers and earn a trip to the final, possibly against No. 9 Oklahoma State. Still, there’s risk involved.

“You know what you’re going to get in the first game, but that’s it,” said Jerry Palm, who handles bracket projections for CBSSports.com. “What if you lose and then you don’t get any of those teams? Or if you win, and Memphis gets upset?”

LSU might wind up facing Purdue or Butler, both of whom are borderline bubble teams.

The rest of the Tigers’ schedule is thin. Sure, they visit Texas Tech, but the Red Raiders were picked ninth in the Big 12. A home game against Northwestern State, the Southland favorite, might be better for the résumé.

“There’s just no margin for error,” Palm said. “You can’t lose to a Vanderbilt or lesser SEC teams.”

The first month of conference play offers up résumé-building moments. There’s the SEC opener at home against Tennessee, road trips to Ole Miss and Alabama and a home game against Missouri. Oh, and a visit by top-ranked Kentucky.

Palm said the SEC should be better at the top, but its strength is sapped once you get past the first five or six teams, and there aren’t many more quality wins for LSU to find until late in the season. That’s when the Tigers visit Kentucky in late February and Florida to start March. Optimally, those games would help improve seeding — not be necessary for LSU to keep its tournament hopes alive.

“If they have to wait until the end of the season to prove they can win on the road, they’ll have much bigger issues,” Pomeroy said.

And forget the logic of pointing out that LSU could notch a 12-6 record in the SEC, Palm said. It was only three years ago that the selection committee left Alabama out with a 12-4 mark.

“This is something that happens in the SEC with fans every year,” Palm said. “The committee doesn’t care how many conference games you won.”

But all the modeling and parsing of schedules can’t ensure certainty. Cautiously, both Pomeroy and Palm have the Tigers among the last teams in the field, landing somewhere in the range of a No. 10 or 11 seed.

“That’s going to be a good year compared to where they’ve been recently,” Palm said.

And any forecast that includes the postseason is one the Tigers will gladly embrace.

“You get tired of getting skipped,” junior guard Anthony Hickey said. “You get tired of coming up short every year.”