LSU regains NCAA’s attention

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --  Arkansas' Kikko Haydar fouls LSU's Jarell Martin during the game between LSU and Arkansas on Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Arkansas' Kikko Haydar fouls LSU's Jarell Martin during the game between LSU and Arkansas on Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge.

There’s nothing Joe Alleva would like better than to be asked to leave the room.

In his first two years on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, the group whose job it is to fill out the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket, Alleva hasn’t had the pleasure of being asked to step outside because the other nine committee members needed to consider his Tigers’ merits.

Alleva heads to Indianapolis on Tuesday for a dry run through the selection process. The committee will go through the motions as though the season ended Feb. 11 and will fill out a mock bracket.

Any bracketologist worth his powers of projection would sell Bob Knight’s thrown folding chair — with their mother strapped in it — to be in the room and see the selection committee’s inner workings.

Alleva won’t be asked to leave the room when LSU’s NCAA tournament worthiness is discussed. It’s just practice — we’re talking about practice.

But rest assured the Tigers will be considered. This time.

With four wins in its past five games to improve to 14-6 overall and 5-3 in Southeastern Conference play, LSU has given a reviving transfusion to its once-anemic NCAA tournament hopes.

Depending whom you look at, LSU has played its way back onto either the inner or outer curve of the NCAA tournament bubble.

  • ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has LSU among his last four out.
  • USA Today and CBSSports.com have LSU in a first-round play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
  • NBCSports.com has LSU as a No. 11 seed in the South Regional.

All good news for a Tigers team that looked like it had pressed the self-destruct button on its NCAA tournament aspirations with an 88-74 overtime loss at Ole Miss back on Jan. 15.

But LSU’s chances of making a journey to the tourney for the first time since 2009 are hanging by a few loose threads at the bottom of Johnny O’Bryant’s jersey. The Tigers still have precious little margin for error as they head into their final 10 games, the first critical step beginning Thursday with a road trip to Georgia (10-10, 4-4 SEC).

“I can’t say anything about us as a member of the committee,” said Alleva, who serves on the selection committee through 2016. “As athletic director, I think our team is playing better. Our RPI as of (Tuesday) is No. 54.

“At the end of the day, we have to play well and keep winning. We’ve got to win the games we’re supposed to win.”

Georgia is one of those wins LSU needs to get. The Bulldogs’ best victory came back on Jan. 8 when it toppled then No. 21 Missouri in overtime. Most recently, Georgia has dropped three straight, including a 74-67 loss Saturday at lowly Auburn.

Winning at Georgia looms even more critical because the Tigers still face some enormously tough road games at Kentucky, Florida and even Arkansas, which can’t seem to find a road win with a GPS and a box of flares but defends its home court like it was The Alamo.

Those stiff tests make LSU’s other seven remaining games — home and home contests with Georgia and Texas A&M, at home against Auburn and Mississippi State and at Vanderbilt — even bigger must-wins. And somehow, the Tigers are probably going to have to find a way to win one of those three at Kentucky, Florida or Arkansas.

Johnny Jones, massaging and encouraging his relatively young team at every turn, plays an upbeat chord on his optimistic banjo.

“I think our team has done a tremendous job on the road, and I don’t say that lightly,” he said. “I think anytime you go to a venue like Ole Miss, a team that’s sitting at 6-2 (before Tuesday’s loss at Kentucky) in the league, and we have the ball on the last possession to have an opportunity to win — I think we played well, but the shot didn’t go.

“We put ourselves in a similar situation at Alabama. I think we were only a couple of possessions from winning. We understand what it takes. It’s just a matter of getting over that hump and making plays down the stretch. We’ve been in that situation at home as well. I think our team knows that it is capable. It’s a matter of getting that behind you like at South Carolina, the first road game of the season (a win) for us in terms of conference play.”

With an ever-improving frontcourt of O’Bryant and freshmen Jordan Mickey and Jerrell Martin, plus a seasoned backcourt with Anthony Hickey and Shavon Coleman, the Tigers have the talent to be a tough out for anyone.

“Not many teams go 6-8, 6-9, 6-9 across the front like we do,” Alleva said. “And our zone defense is starting to give people trouble.

“I’m excited about these last few games.”

And the prospect of being asked to cool his heels in the hall in Indy come March.