Rabalais: Easy for LSU to play the ‘What if?’ game

How should we remember LSU’s 2012-13 athletic year?

Was it marked by failure or success? Achievement or disappointment?

LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva was both succinct and accurate.

“It was a ‘What if?’ year,” he said this week.

Tigers teams were so close to greatness over and over again, looking back one can clearly pick out a familiar pattern among the debris left behind by the wins and losses.

“It started with football,” Alleva said. “We lost a heartbreaker to Alabama and finished with a heartbreaker against Clemson. We lost a heartbreaker to Florida, too. We couldn’t score any points and just wore out.

“We were so close in football to playing for the national championship, it’s crazy.”

Alleva’s words sound like hyperbole, but he isn’t far off. Keep LSU’s 14-6 defeat at Florida a loss but allow the Tigers to come up with one more first down or one more stop in their 21-17 loss to Alabama, and what do you have? All else being equal, you would have a team that was playing Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the right to smack Notre Dame around South Florida in the BCS title game.

Maybe LSU would have beaten Georgia, maybe not. But as was the case for Alabama, it was a 50-50 proposition that the Tigers could have won. Beating Notre Dame would have been almost a foregone conclusion for LSU, as it would have been for Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida or South Carolina.

“What if we beat Bama?” Alleva asked. “What if we had won our first game in the College World Series? What if Justin Hamilton had stuck around?”

Hamilton’s early departure for pro basketball after the 2011-12 season left Johnny Jones’ first LSU team with a hole in the middle it couldn’t adequately fill. Without the 7-footer pulling down 12 points and seven rebounds per game as he did in 2011-12, the Tigers still went 19-12 and narrowly missed an NIT berth. With him, it’s a decent bet LSU would have won a couple of the four games it lost by five points or fewer and at least made it to the NIT.

As for the CWS, that of course is still a fresh wound. If a couple of the deep fly balls by Christian Ibarra or Andrew Stevenson in that opener with UCLA made it out of the park instead of just making outs, the Tigers may have been on their way to the CWS final, not the Bruins.

Of course, a lot of schools can play the “What if?” game at the end of each athletic year. It’s the teams that have the talent, the determination and good fortune to get the clutch wins who hold up the hardware.

UCLA found a way to make its meager amount of offense count for its first CWS title. Alabama came up with the right play to end a second half of offensive frustration, beat LSU and stay on track for a BCS title despite losing to A&M a week later.

The goal for LSU in 2013-14? Replace the “What if?” moments with just a few more key wins.