Harris: However you look at it, LSU’s making progress

Go ahead and forget the final five minutes of LSU’s opening-round win against San Francisco on Wednesday night.

Gnashing and grinding molars into a chalky powder is time wasted.

Firing off blistering 140-character gripes on Twitter is futile,too.

Carp about letting a 16-point lead dwindle to six. Point out a six-possession span marked by three turnovers. Lament Jordan Mickey short-arming a jumper from the baseline and two clanked free throws.

No, LSU coach Johnny Jones’ NIT debut wasn’t without tottering down the stretch.

And it’s easy to fixate on the imperfections, because that’s now the routine with the Tigers: Get sucked in by their potential, peeved by the consistency of their flaws.

But for a program that’s lived a feast-or-famine existence for at least 15 years, you might just have to live with stilted execution in a 71-63 victory.

And sweat out the Tigers’ visit to Moody Coliseum to face top-seed SMU at 8 p.m. Monday.

Which brand of ball will the Tigers display?

The one where Anthony Hickey and Tim Quarterman, a 20.8 percent shooter from long distance, can loft in timely back-to-back 3-pointers during a 9-0 run, and all looks swell?

Or the one with irksome hallmarks? For example, Mickey catching a ball at the free-throw line, pauses, practically staring down a defender and then bulling into him for a charge call just 15 seconds into the shot clock.

Euphoria gets blunted by paranoia, or at the nagging sense LSU’s grip on any game can slip.

Often, sports can drive us to confirmation bias. We cherry pick moments, stats and quotes to fit a world view that affirms our own view, and then we seek out those in our camp.

The Tigers are a prime candidate for this habit, and are left to answer for expectations they had no role in setting.

An optimist sees the following: LSU overcame the tendency to allow home-standing teams to bomb away from the 3-point line, holding the Dons to just 3 of 23 from behind the arc.

A pessimist counters: The Tigers, bigger and stronger along the front line, were outrebounded by a plus-6 margin and let the Dons rack up 40 points in the paint.

Perhaps it’s easier to just say the Tigers’ precocious ability can be ragged, as prone to leaving jaws sagging as for inducing winces. Every game prompts the same inquiry: Which side wins out?

Grading on a curve might be the best approach.

A squad that managed to squander late leads at Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky has won three of its last four outside the Baton Rouge city limits. Stilted as it might be, that’s progress.

Consider this stat, though.

If the Tigers knock off the Mustangs, they’ll reach the NIT quarterfinals. Over the past five years, roughly half the programs that advance that far make the NCAA tournament and average around 21 wins the next season.

Of course, beating SMU may only spur more frustration.

Beating the last team left out of the field of 68, and who should have been in over North Carolina State, will only produce more gripes that LSU could have been the program wrecking brackets in office pools around America.

Take the long view, though.

Perhaps this lays the ground work for the Tigers to build toward a deep push in the NCAA tournament several years from now. It’s not unprecedented.

In 1983, Dale Brown’s crew went 19-13 and exited the NIT in the first round. Three years later, the Tigers were in the Final Four. Twenty-one years later, John Brady’s group went down in the first round of the NIT and finished 18-11 overall after 2004. By 2006, the Tigers were again among the final quartet left standing.

Or maybe it’s simply more evidence of inconsistency.

Again, pick your narrative.

In the near term, LSU is simply trying to develop a facet of its personality that it didn’t have when we threw the ball up back in November. You can’t manufacture or fabricate postseason experience, and rarely is it earned without anxiety and growing pains.

Inside War Memorial Gymnasium, the Tigers planted a foot forward.

How far it takes them this year, and whether they evolve past inconsistency remains to be seen.