What life does the tortured soul of LSU take on now?
If the premise seems more philosophical than it needs to be, well, that’s where the Tigers have left us with three games remaining in the regular season and a visit to No. 1 Florida looming Saturday afternoon.
Keeping track of how many times coach Johnny Jones’ group has tried to reincarnate itself is an exercise in tedium, too.
The whole sticking point is the Tigers getting trapped in the spin cycle — looking every bit the NCAA tournament team in Baton Rouge and cutting the profile of an NIT team when it leaves — is directly related to an inability to shed the underlying psyche that’s contributed to their problem.
Basically, the Tigers could spew the same lines about talking more on defense, containing ballhandlers, closing out on 3-point shooters and trying to muster the collective grit to knuckle down and grind out games in the latter stages.
Finding some form of enlightenment is a pressing matter, too.
Out of the roughly 20 scenarios for how the final stretch could unfold, there’s a feasible path for LSU to hack its way out of the wilderness and back toward the NCAA tournament bubble. If the Tigers can win two of their next three, they’d arrive in Atlanta with a 19-11 record and sitting at roughly No. 58 in the RPI. Win two games in the Georgia Dome, and presto: A 21-12 record with a projected RPI of No. 47.
And if LSU is trying to find a model to emulate, picking the Gators wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Just listen to Jones describe UF, which is giving up a paltry 51.7 points per game and 38.5 percent shooting this season at home, and its brand of badgering opponents.
”When you have the basketball, they have a lot of eyes on you,” Jones said. “They’re in the right position and trying to take away driving lines, helping, switching, communicating and at the end of the day rebounding the basketball. They’re a physical team as well. They’re strong and play with a sense of urgency and toughness all the time.”
LSU, by all accounts, has put the effort in to mold itself in the image that would be a fine replica of Florida.
But the execution of copying a masterwork has been at points sloppy.
Until a 77-76 overtime loss at Kentucky, the Tigers hadn’t held their past six SEC opponents under 80 points or to less than 43 percent shooting from the floor and behind the 3-point line.
The nausea from watching Julius Randle’s game-winning stickback with 3.9 ticks left was only made worse by the realization LSU defended consistently — allowing just 41.8 percent shooting and a lone 3-pointer — but saw a hustle play deal a mortal blow to a coveted quality win.
Yet, that obscures the bigger picture: The Tigers don’t quite know how to account for all the little details.
Let’s take stock.
At Ole Miss, Jarvis Summers drove to left elbow for a pull-up jumper with under a minute to go to force overtime in an 88-74 loss, a game where LSU led with 84 seconds left.
Ten days later, Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey got mixed up switching on a pick-and-pop against Alabama forward Shannon Hale — a man who’d knocked down two 3-pointers already — behind the arc for a go-ahead 3-pointer with 46 seconds left in an 82-80 setback.
Finally, there was last week in a game where LSU’s initial defense was good, but the Tigers allowed 50 points in the lane and 24 on second-chance plays like the one made by Randle to snatch a game LSU had won at the end of regulation and extra time.
Three games, and three potential wins, ones that would have been snagged despite larger system malfunctions defensively, missed.
Standing in cramped hallways and slumped against cinderblock walls, the refrain passing from the Tigers’ teeth has been as consistent as the lax attention to detail: We’re close, but we just need a few breaks.
Elite teams, though, are able to facilitate their own luck. Again, see Florida, which is 7-2 this season in games decided by less than six points, including its past three victories.
One of the losses, the Gators’ last one before their current 20-game winning streak, came on walk-off jumper from the free-throw line by UConn’s Shabaz Napier.
”That’s their make up,” Jones said. “They have great leadership in those type of games through the years, and they have the ability to close. When you have guys that understand their roles and can make big plays, they know exactly who to go to.”
Wouldn’t it be truly fitting it the Tigers, too, if the Tigers could shed this flaky persona on a floor where the SEC’s banner carrier for consistency has won 30 in a row?
Doing so might prove to growth process Jones talks about has finally found enlightenment — the kind the program can draw upon moving forward.