LSU vets facing last games together in NIT
Around their off-campus apartment, quiet reigned among Johnny O’Bryant III, Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman.
Not at all.
LSU’s veteran trio didn’t settle in to watch the waning rounds of power conference tournaments and peers lock up automatic berths to the NCAA tournament.
An 85-67 loss in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament momentarily sapped any interest, which is understandable when a collegiate career ends with a thud inside the Georgia Dome and scoring an at-large berth ceased to be an option.
“It was actually hard for me to watch basketball after Friday,” O’Bryant said Monday. “It’s hard to know you had the opportunity to be in that position and know you couldn’t really get there.”
For three friends, seeing LSU’s name pop up in the second NIT pairing revealed Sunday night is a reprieve — another chance for the fifth-seeded Tigers (19-13) to play No. 4 seed San Francisco (21-11) at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“It keeps us on edge, knowing it could be over in a couple of days if we don’t care of business,” said Stringer, who is a senior.
“We understand how important it is to play together.”
Often, the question of motivation asked among the squads making up the less-glamorous field of 32.
First, there’s the 13-team glut of regular-season champions dethroned early on in their conference tournaments, but coming from leagues where the automatic bid is the lone one to be had.
Scattered through the bracket are Georgia State, Green Bay, Belmont and Vermont.
Next, the conglomerate of teams whose bubble hopes popped: SMU, Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri, Southern and Louisiana Tech.
Finally, LSU might reside in the narrow vein of programs relieved to score any invite at all to a postseason tournament in which, unlike the CBI, you don’t pay to play on.
LSU coach Johnny Jones said it’s reasonable to wonder where “the motivation may lie” with a veteran-laden roster that’s been to the NCAA tournament and might view the NIT as a step down.
Not for the Tigers, whose core of veterans have only experienced one postseason excursion: A 96-76 blowout at the hands of Oregon two years ago in the NIT.
“This is a great opportunity for them to continue to play and leave their mark,” Jones said. “This is what we’re faced with, so we’re certainly going to put our best foot forward.”
And one of the few opportunities left for Stringer, a senior, and O’Bryant, a junior.
The pair has played together since their AAU days with the Jackson Tigers.
Stringer was as the son of a coach and a standout at Forest Hills High, and O’Bryant as the lumbering country kid from two hours away in Cleveland, Miss., who would crash at the guard’s house.
Last season, O’Bryant put off decamping from Baton Rouge and heading to the NBA draft, a decision that seems less likely nearly 12 months later.
Aside from his own development, two of O’Bryant’s closest friends in Stringer and forward Jalen Courtney, who transferred to Morehead State last May, won’t be in the fold.
“We know our time together is getting short,” Stringer said.
Talking with reporters after the loss to Kentucky, O’Bryant took responsibility for a pair of jobs.
One was the inability mesh the remnants of Trent Johnson’s roster more cleanly with a top-1o recruiting class assembled by Jones. The other: Failing to get his best friend to a NCAA tournament.
“Andre’s a leader on this team, a guy a lot of guys look up to,” O’Bryant said Monday. “Not being able to get him to the NCAA tournament was hurtful for me.”
Coleman, a junior-college transfer and Thibodaux native, became a third member of the group after rooming during his first season with O’Bryant.
Barely 10 feet away, the lanky small forward slumped inside a locker — jersey off, shoes, too, but with his ankles still taped — simply gazing off into the distance.
Snippets of moments from his time in Baton Rouge, good and bad, played on a loop.
“I just sat there, and all you do is think,” said Coleman, who is the Tigers’ other senior. “It happens so fast. That’s why you need to enjoy moments like this one. You don’t how many are left.”
All three share the same digs — and all quietly brooded while they endured a 48-hour wait for the NIT field to be released.
“We watched a lot of NBA games,” O’Bryant said.
“But after the loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament, it was a heartbreaker for those guys. They wasn’t in a good mood. I wasn’t in a good mood.”
Admittedly, they also tempered expectations ahead of learning their lot in the NIT. Perhaps applying a little bit of skepticism about their chances — there were only 19 at-large slots available — was the best way to avoid another letdown.
“It’s tough to just think you’re already in,” Stringer said. “It’s just tough. You never know. You expect the worst just to avoid letting yourself down so much.”
Meanwhile, Jones doesn’t think the nature of the loss to Kentucky will leave any lingering effects when the Tigers take the floor at War Memorial Gymnasium.
“That’s part of basketball,” Jones said. “You get hit like that, and that’s the great part about it — when you have the opportunity to play again in these postseason season deals. It’s an opportunity for you to get back up and compete again.”
All he needs for proof is to ask Stringer, too.
“I’m excited, just for the mere fact I get to put that jersey on again,” Stringer said.