This is fun, right? After all the years wandering in the #SECBasketballFever wilderness, LSU at long last will play some truly meaningful March basketball. We're invited to the Madness this time.
While LSU is mostly on solid footing for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009, there are some potential hurdles but also room to make more leaps up the seeding lines. Let's take a look at the Tigers' profile heading into the most important two-week stretch thus far of the Johnny Jones era in Baton Rouge.
Bracketology: Lunardi/ESPN - 10 seed | Palm/CBS - 8 | USA Today = 8 | NBC = 9 | SB Nation = 10
Notable Wins (RPI): @ West Virginia (20), UMass (61), Ole Miss x2 (47), UGA (32)
Bad Losses = at Missouri (201), at Mississippi State (198), Auburn (138)
Key Stats = 7-3 in road games, 4-4 vs. RPI top 50, 11-5 vs. RPI top 100
Let's start with LSU's wins. Not many teams and certainly very few SEC teams, have a road non-conference win as good as LSU's win in Morgantown. The work the Tigers did in defeating the Mountaineers nearly three months ago is ultimately what has this team off the hottest coals of the bubble right now.
After that, owning three more RPI top 50 wins against your primary league competition for an at-large berth is a huge advantage. As of right now, the committee would have major explaining to do if Georgia or Ole Miss were ahead of LSU on its big board. It didn't seem like it for a while but that UMass win is also going to come in handy.
While the committee has never explicitly stated it cares about this, LSU certainly looks the part. Watch any game with the Tigers and sure as day, there'll be announcers raving about Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey and Mr. Triple Double himself, Tim Quarterman. That "eye test" aspect is reflected in LSU's BPI and Ken Pom ratings, which both measure something resembling a mix of "true efficiency", "luck" and team quality. In other words, LSU has slightly underachieved compared to its on-court performance but still has done plenty in terms of both earning a bid with results and, somewhat importantly, appearing to be an NCAA team.
As far as we know, these are little-used metrics for the NCAA committee but the members are only human and they likely see what the rest of us see, and that's some serious talent capable of playing with almost anybody in the country. All of that helps LSU's case.
On this front, it all comes down to that trio of horrible SEC losses. Getting swept by fellow - and likely in worse shape - bubble team Texas A&M? Not ideal, but you can live with that. November neutral site losses to Clemson (85 RPI) and extra bubbly Old Dominion (44)? Quite forgivable.
But those losses to Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri? They're likely going to be the worst trio of defeats for any team that has legitimate hopes of getting an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. They're that bad. If LSU had won even two of them, the Tigers' RPI would shoot up by 10 points and they'd be about where Arkansas is: a solid 6 seed. Instead, there's still work left to do.
LSU also hasn't won a truly signature game since December, barely missing out on an ultimate bargaining chip when it failed to finish off Kentucky in the PMAC four weeks ago. No shame in that, but it does ultimately cap the Tigers' potential seed - barring a win over UK in the SEC Tournament, of course.
Despite the losses, that problem is strangely a decent one to have as far as the bubble goes. Most teams' NCAA resumes suffer from a lack of good wins or a poor record against RPI top 50/100 competition. LSU would be off the bubble completely without those inexplicable lapses. Still, the committee seems to prefer teams that show they're capable of beating good teams (even if they can lose to bad ones) than a team like Texas A&M, who has pretty much no bad losses but has barely beat anyone of note.
At this point, the various Bracketology predictions seem pretty clear: LSU is solidly a 9 seed or so. Even this late in the game, that leaves a path to a wide range of outcomes. Go 2-0 to close out the season, including a road win at Arkansas? The Tigers would suddenly be playing in the SEC Tournament for a potential 6 seed. Go 1-1 with a loss in Fayetteville? It would probably take a run to the SEC Tournament finals with wins over some combination of Arkansas/UGA/Ole Miss/A&M to threaten the 6 line. An 8 seed would be more likely as long as LSU gets at least one W in Nashville.
The disaster scenario would be an 0-2 week, which would hurdle LSU back to the Last Four In/Out territory that is a terrifying place to be heading into Conference Tournament Week. Losing at Arkansas is perfectly acceptable but losing at home to Tennessee (current RPI of 104) would be a 4th sub-100 RPI loss. It would also drop LSU behind Georgia and Ole Miss — its chief competition within the SEC for NCAA bids — in the conference standings. That is damaging in the committee's eyes.
Overall, LSU is in a position we're not exactly used to. The Tigers haven't been a bubble team since 2003, when it won its last four regular season games and upset a top-10 Florida team in the SEC Tournament to solidly reach the Big Dance as an 8 seed. Other than that, LSU has either won the SEC regular season title (2000, 2006, 2009) or been a 6 seed (2005) in its other quartet of NCAA bids since 2000.
It's a sign this program is picking up speed at a natural pace, rather than firing off great seasons once or so every Olympic cycle like John Brady and Trent Johnson managed. The goal is to get off the bubble down the road, but let's try to enjoy the ride this time around.
There's March basketball with something at stake and LSU is a team people will be talking about, for better or worse, come Selection Sunday. We're at least relevant again.