Rabalais: Tigers’ win, like season, delightful and painful to watch

In searching for the proper soundtrack to the 2013-14 LSU Tigers’ highlight reel, I should think something from U2’s “Rattle and Hum” would be appropriate.

There’s “Pride.” There’s “Desire.” But there’s also “Helter Skelter” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

These Tigers embody all those elements, and a few more that James Naismith and Dick Vitale would not recognize. They play a brand of basketball that can be equal parts delightful and painful to watch, as full of contrasts as the black and white stripes on a referee’s shirt.

Both were on display in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Wednesday night in an uneven 68-49 victory by LSU against Texas A&M that was typical of the Tigers’ season.

At times the Tigers played great, like when they throttled the offensively-challenged Aggies during a 10-minute surge that produced a 21-0 run. Then there was the dazzling play of freshman forward Jarell Martin, whose stock is clearly trending upward. His 20-point effort on marksman-like 7 of 9 shooting along with seven rebounds (six on the defensive end) was a marvel, and indicative of the kind of star power that made him a five-star recruit.

But that 21-0 run gave LSU only a 24-15 lead. That’s because the Tigers started the game looking like they were doing their taxes, falling behind the Aggies 15-7 over the game’s first seven drowsy minutes. LSU was similarly detached start the second half before pulling away with a much stronger effort.

That the Aggies suffer great pains to score is like saying Texans are proud of their barbecue. This was the 10th time this season A&M has scored 55 points or less, which proves the theory that the Aggies would struggle to score points in the post-Johnny Manziel world.

But this is the same A&M team that pumped in 83 points against LSU in a 10-point victory back in College Station on Feb. 12, a road loss that was one of many supposed death knells to the Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes. The Aggies haven’t scored more than 75 points in any other Southeastern Conference game, and that includes two cracks at South Carolina. It was the fewest points LSU has allowed all season.

To that end, credit is certainly due the Tigers. They were coming off a 77-76 overtime loss at Kentucky on Saturday, a game LSU so easily could have won, the kind of game that could have just as easily left a young basketball team emotionally gutted.

But if this team has had plenty of lows it’s also shown it can rebound after serious disappointments. Only twice has LSU failed to bounce back from a loss with a victory.

Those NCAA hopes are still nothing but wishful thinking for 17-10 LSU at this point, but the Tigers are showing gradual improvement. Not enough improvement for LSU to reach the NCAA tournament unless the Tigers take home the automatic bid attached to the SEC tournament trophy two weeks from now in Atlanta, but improvement nonetheless.

LSU now heads back on the road for a game Saturday at No. 1-ranked Florida, a game which you at first glance you’d figure would be awfully tough place for the Tigers to play well, much less win.

But this is a team that seems to like the big stage, such as its win at home over Kentucky and its near win in Lexington. Johnny Jones said he expects his team to embrace the challenge.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the country,” the LSU coach said. “It doesn’t get any better. It’s what you look for and what you welcome.”

If there is a time to play the nation’s No. 1 in its home swamp, this would seem to be it. The Tigers clearly are enjoying a new infusion of confidence and at 15-0, Florida has already clenched at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship. If the Gators can drop their guard a bit and Martin and Co. can drop in a few more 3-pointers, well …

If nothing else this LSU team has shown the ability to baffle and confound the predictions, and perhaps even itself. Wednesday’s win keeps the Tigers in what is now a four-way tie for fourth place in the SEC standings (there were seven tied at that mark coming) and gives LSU a fighting chance to claim a double-bye in the conference tournament.

If LSU could finish fourth, that would be where they were picked to start the season. After such a topsy-turvy campaign, wouldn’t that be the most confounding fact of all?