LSU lands NIT bid, trip to San Francisco

In the past two days, the LSU men’s basketball team was in limbo.

A loss to Kentucky on Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament left the Tigers wondering whether they might face the same frustrating scenario as they did a year ago, when they were left out of the National Invitation Tournament.

Alleviating the anxiety only took a minute.

The Tigers (19-13) popped up in the second pairing revealed Sunday night for the field of 32, slotting coach Johnny Jones’ squad as a No. 5 seed and earning them a trip to fourth-seeded San Francisco (21-11) at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s tough because you’re sitting there on edge,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “This year when we saw our name up on the board, it was an exciting time. It’s certainly a little bit nerve-racking.”

The hours leading up to the announcement only exaggerated that sense of dread.

Upheaval in mid-major and low-major conference tournaments threatened to leave the Tigers on the stoop after 13 regular-season champions landed automatic bids into the NIT field — the second-most since the tournament employed that policy starting in 2006.

“We’re excited about having them,” Carroll Williams, head of the NIT selection committee, told ESPNU, “but it does shrink the NIT field.”

With only 19 at-large berths open, the Tigers were in peril after the Southeastern Conference had just three programs make the NCAA tournament. Three bubble teams — Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas — were all theoretically ahead of LSU in the NIT pecking order after they posted higher finishes in the Ratings Percentage Index.

The Tigers landed at No. 83 in the RPI, according to CBS analyst Jerry Palm’s simulation, and went 9-9 during SEC play to finish in seventh place.

LSU faced the nation’s No. 70 schedule, according to Palm’s data, but had quality wins against Saint Joseph’s, Kentucky and Missouri matched against losses to Vanderbilt, Alabama, Texas A&M and Rhode Island — all teams that finished below No. 100 in the RPI.

So the question became whether automatic qualifiers left too few spots and whether SEC peers took up too many for LSU to elbow its way in.

“I thought we had a great opportunity,” Jones said. “We didn’t know how it would shake out.”

Missing the cut again would have been a blow for a program that returned a solid nucleus of veterans in guards Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey along with All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III and blended it with a top-10 recruiting class.

In the preseason, the Tigers were considered a potential NCAA tournament team and picked to finish fourth in the SEC.

Now Jones can point to starting the process of seasoning key pieces such as forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin — both SEC All-Freshman picks — and sending seniors Stringer and Shavon Coleman out on a high note.

“It’s growth,” Jones said. “It signifies that we’re making some positive steps. When you see the guys we have on this basketball team, the underclassmen have an opportunity to keep playing.”

The fact that LSU, which is 3-7 all-time in the NIT, lost three games inside the final two minutes — all on the road against Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky — appeared to be death blows, particularly to the Tigers’ RPI.

Yet Williams said during the broadcast revealing the bracket that the committee gave equal weight to more subjective analysis — watching teams live as much as comparing metrics.

“It’s a lot of old coaches,” Williams said. “Sometimes we don’t go as much on RPI as we do our eyeballs.”

Perhaps it helped push the Tigers in ahead of Indiana, Maryland, Richmond, Ohio, Marquette, UNLV and Boise State.

“They looked and probably saw that we were one of those teams that challenged this year,” Jones said. “There’s some teams that were left out of the field altogether, so to be one of the teams (in the NIT) is something we’re really excited about.”

If the Tigers win, they’ll be on the road no matter what in their next game, which would be against the winner of top seed SMU — one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament — and No. 8 UC-Irvine.

LSU is hosting first- and second-round games of the NCAA women’s tournament, which means the men’s team would not have use of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

First, though, comes a meeting with the Dons, who are coached by former Kansas star and Florida Atlantic coach Rex Walters.

During his stint at North Texas, which was in the Sun Belt Conference with FAU, Jones went 1-1 in two meetings with the Owls. But he admitted he and the Tigers staff have to get up to speed on their West Coast Conference opponent.

“We’ll certainly have to get to work tonight,” he said.