Young Tigers seek composure as team struggles
Shifting his weight and swaying, LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant clearly appeared tense Saturday.
Thirty minutes after road loss at Arkansas, the junior forward made it clear the Tigers’ filter isn’t catching all the critiques directed their way.
Three days earlier, freshmen Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey quietly confirmed they, too, hear criticism of the Tigers, who in the span of two weeks went from vying for a NCAA tournament to setting a downward course to the NIT.
Now comes the hard part: Finding an answer to why LSU (15-6, 6-6 Southeastern Conference), which hosts Mississippi State (13-12, 3-9) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, won’t meet expectations imposed by those who don’t tug on a jersey.
Groping for answers to explain setbacks isn’t a common act for Mickey, Martin and point guard Tim Quarterman.
All arrived on campus as top-75 recruits, including Martin as a McDonald’s All-American. Success can seem a birthright until it becomes hard to replicate at the collegiate level.
Lost in the talk of adapting to the speed and complexity of the college game is the need to develop the psyche adept at moving past setbacks and not internalizing them.
“Nobody wants to lose, but somebody is going to,” Mickey said. “You learn not to dwell on the game too long. You want to look at what you did wrong and just move on from it.”
As for their coach, Johnny Jones said blocking out every scrap of information — good and bad — is an unrealistic and implausible task. Instead, the LSU staff relies on its players to understand the nature of how public opinion ebbs and flows.
“They just need to understand it’s part of the fabric of what they’re involved in, and it comes with winning and losing,” Jones said. “When they’re winning, I’m sure they read and hear it and all the great things that come along with it, and when things are not going well to hear the other side of it.”
On Monday, any loose metrics used to gauge the Tigers’ credentials for March Madness suggested any path toward an at-large berth is treacherous.
LSU slipped to No. 72 in the Ratings Percentage Index, down 18 spots since a week in which it swept then-No. 11 Kentucky and Arkansas. Its projected rating sits at No. 73, according to RPIforecast.com, while KenPom.com has the Tigers limping to an 18-12 record and a .500 finish in the SEC.
That’s a far cry from preseason predictions tabbing LSU to finish fourth in the conference and end a four-year absence from the NCAA tournament.
“Anytime you don’t play, it’s a disappointment,” Jones said. “That’s what you put the uniform on for. That’s why you play. That’s why you practice every day, and that’s what it’s really all about.”
No one is more acutely aware of the standard set down than Jones as an assistant coach over 13 seasons alongside Dale Brown.
To paraphrase Jones, he was there for a Final Four trip in 1986 and three SEC titles. But he was also there for the back end of Brown’s tenure when criticisms grew louder and the scrutiny more white hot.
Jones knows how put it all in context, and whatever is printed or said doesn’t do much to rile him.
“There’s nothing said or written that does that for me,” Jones said. “I’m a self-motivator and was just sort of built that way. That’s how I played. I didn’t need ‘rah-rah speech” to go out there and play and challenge somebody. That was just sort of my mentality and my makeup. I coach that way, too.”
Since October, though, no member of the LSU roster has openly declared the NCAA tournament as a likely destination. They’ve hewed to the same talking point as Jones: The season is a journey, each game a signpost.
So it can seem a bit odd — and potentially frustrating — to be called to account for an expectation no one suiting up for LSU personally declared.
“It’s just something we’ve had to take day by day,” Mickey said of dealing with outside expectations. “We try not to look at the NCAA (tournament) stuff. Right now, we just want to finish conference play and get through the SEC tournament.”
Guard Andre Stringer, a senior with only an NIT loss to Oregon on his postseason résumé, lauded how a consensus top-10 recruiting class has dealt with the pressure set on its shoulders.
“In this business, you’ve got to understand those things will happen,” Stringer said. “Those guys have done a good job staying level headed. It’s difficult, obviously, being so young and losing.”
All they can do is see opportunity in front of them with road games at Kentucky and Florida along with the SEC tournament.
Sure, the forecast is bleak. Accepting it as gospel isn’t an option, though.
“Just plug ahead, and knowing the season’s not over with,” Quarterman said. “It’s (about) not falling apart right now.”
And truthfully, that’s an optimist’s view right now too.