Johnny Jones boarded a charter bus and settled into his seat after LSU wrapped up a secret scrimmage against Rice slightly aghast at what had unfolded in Tudor Fieldhouse.
The first-year LSU coach scrimped on the specifics about what happened against the lowly Owls in late October, who after Saturday reside clearly in the basement of Conference USA. But what Jones revealed is the four-hour ride from Houston to Baton Rouge on Interstate 10 produced an onset of concern.
“I don’t think I spoke,” he said. “I don’t think I blinked.”
As for his expectations, the assessment remains largely a state secret, neatly stored in his memory and concealed from public view. Yet Jones chuckled when asked to give a condensed summary of its contents.
“I don’t want to tell you where I thought we could be,” he said Saturday after LSU defeated Mississippi State.
Five months later, Jones’ initial dire forecast is clearly revised. LSU (15-8, 6-6 Southeastern Conference), which visits Tennessee (14-10, 6-6) at 6 p.m. Tuesday, is clearly removed from an 0-4 SEC start and beginning to creep into the fringes of contention for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
A potential No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament, which LSU currently occupies, and scraping into a postseason tournament isn’t exactly reason to raise banners in the rafters in the Pete Maravich Center, especially in a down season when the SEC is considered the NCAA’s worst power conference. But in context, the Tigers, who have won five of their past six, have recovered from their winless start better than their contemporaries that started winless in four SEC games.
In 2007-08, LSU scrambled to win four of its closing five games to reach six conference victories. And two seasons ago, the Tigers went 0-12 in the SEC before defeating Arkansas and finishing 2-14 in conference play.
“I’d rather us lose early than later,” guard Charles Carmouche said. “And right now is the perfect time for us to come together and make our run.”
Against the Volunteers, the Tigers end a stretch of three games in six days against a squad that has reeled off three consecutive victories, including an 88-58 thumping of Kentucky on Saturday in the first game the freshman-laden Wildcats played after star forward Nerlens Noel tore his left ACL earlier in the week at Florida.
After LSU’s victory against State, Jones saw the Tennessee score, which left a deep impression. Reviewing game tape only further drove in a lingering point: Tennessee pounced as soon as UK showed weakness.
“That shock, and having to play on the road (against a team) that is as excited, fired-up and as capable as Tennessee, was a combination of things to create that atmosphere,” Jones said. “Tennessee does a great job of taking the ball to the basket and in a midrange game and, when you take away that shot-blocker ... it’s difficult.”
Tennessee’s revival stems largely from the consistency found by forward Jarnell Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore, in the past three weeks — a stretch when the Memphis, Tenn., native notched six consecutive double-doubles. Last season, Stokes, who graduated from high school early and enrolled in January 2012, was a critical catalyst for the Volunteers in SEC play, averaging 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
“It’s a case that he’s a guy that wants to be a great player,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said recently. “Everybody learns at their own pace; everybody grows at certain times. You see guys, all of a sudden, one year later become high-profile names.”
Tennessee’s recent surge could be viewed in the same vein as LSU’s, too.
Inside, sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant has averaged 16.6 points and 10.7 rebounds in the past nine games, and guard Anthony Hickey has been able to slide back into a natural role as an on-ball pest and distributor in the half court.
“If you look at the play of Johnny early on and you talk about him and how he’s playing now, I think that’s a huge step for us,” Jones said. “I think you can go down the line and look at other guys as well.”
Odd as it sounds now, Carmouche said losing four games to open the conference slate calloused the Tigers’ mentally and honed their focus — even if those losses forced them to play a proverbial game of catch-up the past month.
“We’re more experienced,” Carmouche said. ‘We got a chance to figure how (tough) this league is.”
Jones’ staff simplified its system, particularly how it installs facets of a transition game intended to speed up an LSU program by six possessions per game. Instead of averaging around 72 possessions, the Tigers, who averaged only 66.1 per game last season, have settled out at 69.1 offensive trips.
“Our guys have done a great job offensively catching on and, when they get a feel for what we’re looking for and asking for, get a great feel for what their roles are,” Jones said.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Tigers ranked No. 13 in the SEC for field-goal percentage, but after shooting 54.5 percent against the Bulldogs, that ranking climbed to 10th at 40.6 percent — closer to Jones’ ideal 42.0 percent mark. LSU notched 24 assists on 30 baskets — an assist rate of 80 percent —and the Tigers’ best effort of the season.
“To come in at halftime and hear guys discussing other guys missing shots that cost them assists instead of worrying about getting the ball is encouraging,” Jones said. “It just shows the unselfishness of this team.”