O’Bryant leads Tigers past Kentucky and back into tournament talk

Johnny Jones’ job entails a smidgen of diplomacy.

The LSU coach displayed it when he took the mic at center court of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center after an 87-82 upset of No. 11 Kentucky to laud the roughly 6,000 souls who forded out in treacherous conditions Tuesday.

And he displayed tact when sitting in front of reporters, one of whom asked the obvious question: How does the win help punch up a blasé NCAA tournament résumé?

“We know we have a lot of season left in front of us,” Jones said. “But we certainly think that’s a really good win for us.”

Perhaps that understates the value of toppling Big Blue.

Before Tuesday, LSU’s RPI sat at No. 62, according to CBS analyst Jerry Palm’s simulation, and the Tigers had three so-so victories over top 100 teams in Missouri (No. 48), Saint Joseph’s (No. 67) and Vanderbilt (No. 86) that don’t exactly move the meter.

Forget having enough to blot out a bad home loss to Rhode Island (No. 134), either.

Mix in the relative weakness of the Southeastern Conference, and LSU couldn’t afford to miss out on nabbing a victory over a top-20 foe. On Monday, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi had LSU as the 13th team left on the stoop when bids are doled out in March.

Even the usually cool and composed Jordan Mickey admitted the necessity of notching an upset — albeit understated.

“We needed this game really bad,” the LSU freshman forward said.

Simply look at LSU’s schedule over the month of February.

First, Arkansas’ hopes for a NCAA tourney berth are flagging after a home loss to Missouri, with coach Mike Anderson’s squad slipping to No. 91 in Palm’s RPI. The Razorbacks (12-7), who arrive Saturday for a 4 p.m. tip, are 2-5 in the SEC, and their road struggles — they’re just 3-20 in the SEC over the past two seasons — are well-documented.

Next, there’s a trip to Georgia, a home game against Auburn, followed with back-to-back trips to Texas A&M and Arkansas, and capped with home date on Feb. 19 against Mississippi State. The average RPI of those opponents? Roughly No. 129.

Oddly, LSU could have reeled off six wins in a row and watched its résumé get worse. But that’s the brutal reality in the power-sapped SEC right now.

The formula to get into the chatter for an at-large bid is easy: Roll up wins and try to pick off either Kentucky or No. 3 Florida along the way.

Well, LSU followed it to the letter at the PMAC, ending a five-game losing skid to the ’Cats in the process.

“It’s always good to win against a ranked team,” LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant said. “Kentucky has beat up on us in the past, and to finally to just get one before I’m finished here is just an awesome experience.”

Leading wire-to-wire, including much of the second half by double-digits, on national TV is a boon, too.

Perhaps watching guard Anthony Hickey, a Kentucky native and former Mr. Basketball, skulk around in pregame warmups was a hint. The junior is always amped when suiting up against Kentucky, and it seeped into the rest of the LSU roster.

“We was just focused the whole way,” Hickey said of the Tigers’ focus, starting in shoot-around. “Usually, there will be a little laughing in there, but everybody was just locked in. I was just trying to pump everybody up.”

It explains the 22-6 run in the game’s first seven minutes, and finding a way to close the first half with a 42-36 lead after Kentucky whittled the 16-point deficit to 27-24 on a dunk from Julius Randle with 6:30 left until the break.

“We really believed from the time of shoot-around that we could get this win,” O’Bryant said. “We came out and made that happen.”

And the Wildcats, seemingly stuck on autopilot, could never make a concerted push out of the locker room to get the lead below eight points in the second half’s opening five minutes.

“The process we are at right now is will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We didn’t show it (Tuesday night).”

Since October, LSU faced expectations that, perhaps, it wasn’t quite ready to have bestowed upon a program in its second season of a rebuild.

The Tigers, upgraded with a top-10 recruiting class, had seemingly the right blend of youth to go with an experienced core of veterans. They were picked to finish fourth in the SEC and tabbed as a sleeper team for March.

But before Tuesday, they’d done little to conform to those predictions. So is knocking off Kentucky a validation of sorts? A sign LSU can push its way out of the scrum in the middle of the SEC standings toward the upper tier?

Don’t expect the Tigers to be too candid. They take good cues from the well-suited man leading them.

“Getting a win over Kentucky is big for us,” forward Shavon Coleman said. ‘We’ve got a lot of games left before worrying about getting in the NCAA tournament. We have to take it one game at a time and try to ease our way in there.”