Harris: Tigers should focus on SEC standing

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As it exited Coleman Coliseum on Saturday night, LSU encountered another setback.

The airport was without a machine to melt the ice off the plane for the Tigers’ charter flight. So instead of a jetting back to Baton Rouge, coach Johnny Jones’ group clambered aboard a bus to get home.

Sleep must have been difficult to find, too. Around 1 a.m., Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant III and Anthony Hickey were pecking out tweets.

None shared their thoughts, though, on what exactly we’re to make of these Tigers, who host No. 14 Kentucky on Tuesday.

After Saturday’s 82-80 loss to Alabama, let’s scrub the narrative — for now — that the Tigers (12-6, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) are a potential bubble team for the NCAA tournament. Instead, accept the reality: LSU is mired in the horde of teams packed together in the middle of the SEC standings.

If we’re having a debate about whether this is parity or mediocrity, the fine gentlemen at the league office in Birmingham might not want to see our comment cards.

But as a thought exercise, let’s sift through the muddled middle:

Ole Miss (14-5, 9-1; RPI of 58)

No one faced an easier six-game start than the Rebels. Their average opponents’ RPI was 122.8, meaning the pendulum likely will swing back the other way in February with games against Missouri, Kentucky and Florida looming. But for now, Ole Miss is an intriguing early storyline.

Georgia (10-8, 4-2; RPI of 115)

The Bulldogs have faced the toughest SEC slate so far with an average opponents’ RPI of 60.8. But this is where context matters: Traveling to Florida and Kentucky boosted that number. How did Mark Fox and Co. fare there? They were smacked by an average of 23.5 points. Upsetting Missouri on the road was nice, but the Dawgs still seem marked as a pretender.

Tennessee (12-7, 3-3; RPI of 52)

Vintage Vols: Pummel the weak, fall flat against bona fide contenders. Consistency has never been to UT’s liking, either. Shellac LSU by 18 points? Sure. Lose to Texas A&M at home? You betcha. Meanwhile, the Vols whiffed on nabbing a quality road win by losing to Kentucky and Florida. If this keeps up, expect the Vols to again be on the outside looking in when March arrives.

Missouri (15-4, 3-3; RPI of 54)

As LSU can attest, Mizzou’s trio of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross can fill it up. Too bad the Tigers lack beef in the lane. MU fans can’t mock former coach and current Arkansas head man Mike Anderson’s road woes, either. Frank Haith is just 3-10 in SEC play away from Mizzou Arena. The Tigers are already saddled with bad losses to UGA and Vandy, too.

LSU (12-6, 3-3; RPI of 64)

The Tigers’ early slate wasn’t kind with top-60 RPI games against Tennessee, at Ole Miss and against Missouri mixed in with a trip to their house of horrors known as Coleman Coliseum, where LSU now has lost nine in a row. The problem: LSU might be behind only Florida and Kentucky in terms of talent, but it can’t find a way to translate it on the floor.

Arkansas (13-6, 2-4; RPI of 72)

The Hogs are barely in this discussion. Until they win away from home, their upset of Kentucky is simply an outlier. Given that they’re 3-20 in SEC road games since Anderson arrived, optimism should be tempered.

So there you have it: your six-team field making up the SEC’s middle class.

Hard to tell them apart, right?

For LSU, the goal should be to try to claw out of the fracas and aim for the highest seed it can nab in the SEC tournament. Beating the Wildcats on Tuesday, if the weather doesn’t back it up, should be viewed less through the prism of improving its résumé than for simply trying to climb the standings.

After UK departs, February is largely barren as far as quality wins, but facing Arkansas twice along with Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State is a run where the Tigers can shift from inertia to momentum for the closing stretch.

All the metrics and formulas don’t matter now.

The reality in a weak SEC remains unchanged: Just pile up wins by bludgeoning your peers and try to spring an upset. Do that, and maybe a couple of SEC tourney victories help get you to the NCAA tournament.

Now LSU simply needs to follow the steps.