Harris: Tigers have to overcome SEC’s perceived shortcomings

As it huddles in an Indianapolis board room each March, the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee operates under a general rule — one of many in a largely cloaked process — that a conference’s relative strength isn’t to be discussed.

A hush-hush policy on the Southeastern Conference might be in LSU’s best interest, too.

Barely a month into the season, there’s a reasonable argument that the Tigers, who host McNeese State on Saturday, suffer from guilt by association. Over the past three seasons, bashing the SEC for its lackluster brand of hoops is commonplace. Every time a Northwestern State upsets an Auburn or a Mercer topples an Ole Miss, the laugh track rolls. A 2-13 record against the top 25 or a 23-28 mark in games against other power conferences does little to solve the conference’s credibility problem, either.

And it’s a shame for LSU (8-2), which by every metric might fare well on the computer screens, on data sheets and in the round-robin balloting of the 10-member committee that selects the 68-team field.

On Thursday, the Tigers sat at No. 16 in the simulated RPIs by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm and guru Warren Nolan — the highest of any squad not ranked in the AP’s top 25 poll. Among the nation’s basketball writers, though, LSU’s potential seeding seems to climb no higher than No. 8.

The AP poll released Monday showed a lone point — representative of a single vote putting LSU at No. 25 — for coach Johnny Jones’ group. Among bracketologists, the consensus is slightly better, with LSU sitting at an average seeding of No. 9, according to bracketmatrix.com, a website that assembles mock brackets from around the Internet.

Don’t expect the next two weeks to do little in increasing the Tigers’ visibility. Facing two more nonconference opponents buried below No. 200 in the RPI in McNeese (No. 238) and Rhode Island (No. 266) won’t strengthen credentials, either.

Yet by every metric, LSU should be in the discussion with Missouri as the SEC’s third-best team, and the gap between those two and No. 18 Kentucky — whose top-ranked recruiting class is battling growing pains — isn’t a gulf. A week ago, the Tigers handled a quality mid-major opponent in UAB, and several days earlier, they emerged from a haphazard road outing at Texas Tech with a victory.

A look at the Tigers’ résumé hints at the foundation LSU potentially poured over the season’s first six weeks:

Average RPI: No. 22.

Average strength of schedule: No. 29.

Record vs. RPI top 100: 4-2.

Solid losses at UMass (No. 2 in the RPI) and a neutral-floor loss to Memphis (No. 28).

Of course, this is all relative. Victories over Saint Joseph’s and UAB could lose luster if those teams fail to stand out in the Atlantic 10 or Conference USA. Chances are UNO’s top-100 standing in the RPI slides once it gets into the meat of the Southland Conference schedule. LSU also has five games against the bottom of the SEC in Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia — all of whom are currently below No. 150 in Palm’s ratings.

This plight isn’t confined solely to LSU, though. In a year where there’s a degree of quality at the top of the SEC, the bottom is so potentially dreadful it will act as a concrete block, dragging down contenders Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and LSU.

There’s an interesting case study, too.

Illinois picked up 53 points in the AP poll to finish the equivalent of No. 27 in the rankings. Yet, the Illini’s profile, with an average RPI of No. 21 and a slightly weaker schedule at No. 38, is similar to LSU’s. The difference? Illinois nabbed a marquee victory over No. 25 Missouri on Saturday.

Who knows how different circumstances would be LSU escaped Amherst, Mass., with a season-opening win over UMass, which is currently ranked No. 22? Or if they curbed turnovers at the Old Spice Classic and knocked off 15th-ranked Memphis and earned a crack against a top-10 foe in Oklahoma State?

Polls aren’t indicative of tournament worthiness, but they still serve as a proper gauge of attitudes. They stir debate. They are a short-hand barometer for those unable to track the relative quality of the 347 squads in Division I. The only way for LSU to break through and overcome the SEC’s relative weakness is to run up the win total.

The Tigers are favored in their next seven games, according to KenPom.com, an advanced statistics website. If that projection holds to any degree, LSU could very well enter late January at 15-2 overall with a 5-0 start in SEC play. Mixed in that gaudy record would be victories over Tennessee, Missouri and Ole Miss.

Yet it might take a win over Kentucky, which visits Baton Rouge on Jan. 28, to finally persuade fans and pundits to buy in.

Until then, the Tigers can only bide their time and let the variable of formulas leave hints as to their potential. They can also hope that the selection committee is paying greater attention to their exploits.