LSU looking to close strong for tournament momentum

Inside Memorial Gymnasium, LSU’s task in a second go-around with Vanderbilt is beautifully simple.

Snap a seven-game road losing streak, and take whatever bit of optimism it breeds and stoke the embers during the next two weeks.

Turning the calendar to March can lead to a convoluted overanlysis and a whole bunch of jargon — RPI, SOS, etc. — to boil down which teams will be tapped for a 68-squad street fight.

But when the Tigers (17-11, 8-8 Southeastern Conference) tangle with the Commodores (15-13, 7-9), their fate doesn’t hinge on the outcome. Right now, coach Johnny Jones’ group appears on course for a NIT berth.

Time isn’t of the essence to fix their resumé.

Instead, tipping off at 6 p.m. Thursday is simply a chance to get on a roll and see what happens to the momentum next week in Atlanta at the SEC tournament.

“Clearly, that’s what has to be done,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “You’ve got to make a run in the tournament. I definitely think we can do it. We’ve just got to finish strong these past two games.”

And that means elbowing their way out of a four-team pack tied for sixth place for the best possible seed.

While Jones isn’t conceding anything, he hinted schedule analysis deduced that Arkansas and Tennessee — each a game ahead in the standings at 9-7 — and are jostling for fourth place and the double-bye that is its prize.

Both teams get games against struggling SEC foes — Auburn and Alabama — meaning it would take upsets to even put LSU back in play for a spot higher than fifth.

We just need to be playing well going into the conference tournament,” Jones said. “Once we get there, get on our streak and have an opportunity to hopefully — if it’s four games that we have to compete in to win a championship that we are ready, prepared and playing the right way at the right time to get that done.”

The path matters, too.

Entering Wednesday, the Tigers would have been in line for the No. 8 seed and a matchup against ninth-seeded Missouri, with a win generating a quarterfinal meeting with top-seed and No. 1-ranked Florida.

Theoretically, snagging the No. 6 seed would mean facing the winner of 11th-seeded Alabama and last-place Mississippi State, followed up with a potential tilt against third-seeded Georgia.

One of those options is decidedly better than the other.

“You want to place yourself correctly,” O’Bryant said. “Once that happens, it’s a new season — a four game season. That’s how we look at it.”

Playing out the hypotheticals, though, doesn’t appeal to Jones. The second-year coach is a realist, but he would also prefer the Tigers focus solely on the option that will ensure a bid — winning the SEC tournament — regardless of the itinerary their handed Saturday night when the regular season ends.

“That’s our mission, not to try to prepare and win enough games to get into the NCAA tournament,” Jones said. “That’s what we would love to do. Not just go there to try and win a couple of games and see what happens. The only thing we can control is how we play.”

Needing to make a run at a conference tournament is a feat Jones is accustom to overseeing. At North Texas, the Mean Green to the finals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament four times over a six-season span, winning it twice in 2007 and 2010.

“As the season progresses, we’ve always gotten better down the stretch,” Jones said. “Guys are familiar with each other. They’re playing, and they have the ability to really feed off of each other.”

And that means not confusing the need to ratchet it up with another sensation it can be easily confused with.

“It’s not thinking about it as pressure,” guard Stringer said. “Urgency, yes. The way we play, the intensity we have, there has to be a sense of urgency right now.”

Drawing Vanderbilt might just be the proper pairing of motive and opportunity.

All season, the Commodores have survived with a roster featuring just seven scholarship players. Their rotation is built on necessity. Three of those players — Rod Odom, Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker — are logging more than 36 minutes per game.

The looming question was when the thin core might succumb to the grind of an 18-game SEC slate.

Maybe that moment arrived in a 76-38 drubbing Saturday at Tennessee and on the heals of a painful 57-54 loss to the Gators last week.

Even with LSU’s well-documented road woes, particularly on the defensive end, the Tigers enter as the slight favorite in what can be deemed a toss-up.

Sports books in Las Vegas have set the line with LSU as 1½-point favorite, while KenPom.com, and advanced statistical site, has LSU winning by a point. Pulling out a tight road game, and trying to offset close losses at Ole Miss and Alabama, might just help Jones’ group gird its confidence as it preps to venture to a neutral floor at the Georgia Dome.

Still, Jones doesn’t sense the streak gnaws at the Tigers’ confidence.

“I don’t think they ever go in feeling tight or uncomfortable because the games that they’ve had — they’ve had success in and the ones they’ve had setbacks in,” Jones said. “We don’t think that way.”

Besides, the Tigers’ future is now solely dependent on what they can craft the next two weeks.

“We’ve just got come out with a great mind set,” O’Bryant said. “Whatever the future holds, it holds.”