Harris: Despite LSU’s progress, it still comes down to wins and losses

OXFORD, Miss. — Twenty minutes after the Ole Miss men’s basketball team yanked a crucial road victory from LSU’s clutches, coach Johnny Jones was tossed a question that made finding a silver lining easy.

Despite the 88-74 overtime loss, was Wednesday night’s expedition into the hostile and weathered Tad Smith Coliseum the best outing of the Tigers’ three so far in Southeastern Conference play?

“We played well in spurts,” Jones said. “If you scratch out the overtime ... ”

Trouble is, Jones’ mastery of the space-time continuum doesn’t leave it as an option.

Blotting out a 15-0 run — one spanning five minutes at the end of regulation and the start over time — to flip a four-point LSU lead into a 80-69 hole isn’t feasible.

And, harsh as it is to say, the season’s reached a point where buzzwords such as “growth” and “progress” are ushered out for a brutal reality: Did you win? Or did you lose?

In October, preseason buzz — both by national pundits and some in the LSU locker room — hinted LSU’s veteran core and a top-10 recruiting class had ingredients to end a four-year absence from March Madness.

Now, two weeks in January, LSU (10-5, 1-2 SEC) finds itself slipping to the back of the chase pack for a place on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Does LSU have time to make up ground? Sure.

Are there ample opportunities to get a booster shot for an RPI sitting at No. 72? Definitely. Hey, Missouri and Kentucky visit Baton Rouge the next two weeks.

After muddling through December, does LSU have the joie de vivre it seemingly lacked? Indeed.

“We played tough,” LSU guard Andre Stringer said. “We got our identity back. The score just doesn’t say that. We can’t really ask for much other than executing down the stretch at the end.”

Still, in the steel cage match that is the middle of the SEC standings, LSU is bloodied early.

The Tigers are saddled with losses to peers in Tennessee and Ole Miss as Arkansas knocks off a ranked foe in No. 13 Kentucky. A loss next week on the road at Alabama — a place where LSU has dropped nine in a row — would only compound matters.

So can LSU, a team seemingly with one piston always misfiring, reconcile an identity crisis?

Is LSU the team that pushed quality tournament-caliber squads in Memphis and UMass and blitzed UAB at home?

Or the listless crew outtoughed by Rhode Island and socked in the jaw by Tennessee?

Tellingly, Jones is still rejiggering his rotation based on “the scouting report and matchups” after saying in early November he wanted a reliable system decided by the end of nonconference play.

Yet in the past week, he scrapped his usual crew and moved a cold-shooting Stringer and a somewhat rudderless Jarell Martin to the bench to promote Shavon Coleman and Malik Morgan.

At South Carolina and on Wednesday against Ole Miss, the moves appeared brilliant.

Starting on the bench, Martin can dissect defenses and find gaps, and when inserted at the power forward spot use his athleticism to exploit matchups. The result? He’s averaged 16 points and 6.5 rebounds.

As for Stringer, who entered Wednesday shooting just 25 percent over the previous five games, it has done little to dent his confidence. The senior notched 23 points on 7 of 10 shooting, including hitting five 3-pointers — his best output of the season.

“Both of those guys played really well and gave us some positive minutes,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to make sure as a unit that we’re putting it all together on those same nights.”

Only now comes the hiccup.

LSU’s front court, the mill of the Tigers’ offensive production, is sputtering. Johnny O’Bryant III and freshman phenom Jordan Mickey scored only eight points on a combined 2 of 10 shooting and grabbed just 10 rebounds.

Just as one snag is resolved, another tangle emerges for Jones.

OK, LSU clawed out a three-point lead early in the second half. Yes, they fended off the Rebels several times when Andy Kennedy’s crew winnowed the lead to two points.

In a hostile environment, LSU shot more free throws (30) than Ole Miss. They snagged 15 offensive rebounds. Despite shooting 36.9 percent, the Tigers generated 22 points off 15 turnovers.

Then again ...

There were the 11 first-half turnovers that stymied an offense that tore off a 10-0 run to take a 14-6 lead early. Whistles saddled five players with two fouls a pop in the first half. And at the foul line, LSU went just 18 of 30 — misses that could have built a larger cushion.

Finally, in the waning minutes, LSU looked less like a calloused road crew polishing off a win and more like a thief dodging a mob. The effort was there, but the execution still coming along.

“You just have to make sure and tell the guys that if we give this type of effort Saturday and what they gave on the road, some good things can happen for us,” Jones said. “You have to make sure you’re playing every second of every play.”

LSU is learning, though, that time is finite. The Tigers need to use it well moving forward.