LSU eager to surprise at the SEC men's basketball tournament

ATLANTA — Andre Stringer slipped up.

Sitting behind a microphone inside the bowels of the Georgia Dome, the LSU guard hinted the No. 7-seeded Tigers again hear rumblings they’ve underwhelmed ahead of the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament.

“Everybody’s excited,” he said, “especially knowing how rocky our season was, some games we didn’t do as well in, and we’re anxious to play.”

Whether the Tigers can emerge as a darkhorse to survive into the weekend is another matter.

On paper, LSU (18-12), which faces No. 10 seed Alabama (13-18) at 6 p.m. Thursday, appeared worthy of being tabbed to finish fourth in the SEC.

The Tigers returned three reliable veterans, including All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III. A top-10 recruiting class was wooed to Baton Rouge. And despite the insistence of its coaches, LSU played in a conference that is trying to shore up its basketball brand.

Instead, the Tigers, a trendy pick to nab an NCAA tournament bid, went 9-9 during SEC play. They lost winnable road games at Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky inside the final two minutes. And they were swept by Georgia — a team picked to finish 11th in the preseason.

The Tigers may need to knock off Crimson Tide to simply keep their clutches on an NIT slot.

“We can’t worry about the past,” O’Bryant said. “This is a four-game season right now. You take it one game at a time. You know you get one win, then you move on to the next.”

A deep run would certainly aid the effort, though.

“Everybody will be vying and playing to put themselves in position over these next few days,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We have to have an edge about ourselves, because we know that every team in this conference has shown on any given night it can be victorious.”

Already, Jones faces questions about whether his alma mater failed to live up to its potential. His posture Monday was optimistic, but Jones hinted an awareness of faint grumblings and critics as his second season in charge winds down.

“The anticipation and excitement has built up around it because people aren’t expecting us not to do well,” Jones said. “When things just don’t happen, you have to have a little bit more of an edge, really, about yourself.”

Unlikely runs studded by upsets aren’t totally out of place, either.

Over the past 15 seasons, six programs that finished below third place in their division — dumped when the league expanded two years ago — have reached the semifinals.

Two of those squads reached the final. South Carolina, which finished fifth in the Eastern Division, lost to top-seed Florida in 2006.

Two years later, Georgia, which went 4-12 during SEC play and finished last in the SEC East, famously reached the finals after a tornado struck the Georgia Dome and knocked off Arkansas to claim the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Forecasting those runs is difficult, though.

Or so said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose Commodores made it to the semifinals last season in Nashville as a No. 10 seed.

“It tends to happen just in the games,” Stalling said. “You win one, and then you get on a little roll. There’s never been anything I’ve sensed going into the tournament when we’ve done well, or when we’ve done poorly.”

Jones said he holds the same logic.

Maybe LSU exacts some vengeance against the Crimson Tide.

That feeling could carry over into the quarterfinals against No. 2 seed Kentucky, a team LSU came within 3.9 seconds and a Julius Randle stick-back in overtime from sweeping.

And perhaps the Wildcats’ won’t be able to match the Tigers’ residual intensity from an victory.

“You sometimes feel comfortable being out there because of the layoff some times of your opponent,” Jones said. “You have to really play to that. So you feel that you have the pieces in place to do what you feel.”

Whatever mixture of emotions or perceived slights fuels LSU is unknown.

The typically reserved and muted Tigers didn’t divulge whatever slights, losses or matchups stir their passions.

They like the setup in Atlanta: four days with quick turnarounds and bouncing quickly from one foe to the next.

“You’re more engaged on playing,” Hickey said. “You’re not worried about nothing.”

But frankly, Stringer doesn’t particularly care how the Tigers rev up.

“I want that sense of urgency to come now,” he said. “Not how we played them the first time, but a clean slate, preparing for another basketball game and another win.”