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Tennessee 78, LSU 63: Rocky Toppled

The Tigers felt the pressure of March and further nuked their NCAA Tournament resume

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It's one long broken record at this point.

One of my Twitter pals, Matt Zemek, says that college programs can often maintain a certain character, regardless of the players wearing the uniform or even the coach on the sideline. For example, there's Northwestern losing heartbreaking football games in spectacular fashion. Or Arizona State coming up short in the spotlight on the gridiron. Don't forget Gonzaga basketball dropping the ball in March. For a timely reference, consider Kansas winning Big 12 titles no matter the personnel or quality of league competition. Hell, let's extend this to Florida State baseball's trouble following up elite regular seasons with postseason success. You can find dozens of examples.

As if it needed further cementing, the loss to Tennessee kept LSU basketball's reputation etched deep in stone: Always capable of a face plant.

It's the latest in a long line of flops for this program and maybe the most costly, purely in on-court terms, in a long while. LSU could've all but locked up a precious NCAA Tournament bid, one it hasn't earned in six years. It was playing at home against a 14-15 team on a 5-game losing skid it led by 27 at the half on the road not even three weeks ago.

Instead of looking like the team with everything to play for, the Tigers and coach Johnny Jones looked like they learned nothing from the Auburn loss. And the Missouri loss. And the Mississippi State loss. And you get the point.

Bottom line, LSU has now lost 4 SEC games to teams with a combined league record of 19-49. The Tigers have lost five of its nine games to teams with a current RPI above 90. For a team with Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and a one-time 6th Man of the Year candidate in Tim Quarterman, that all comes back to effort, focus and intensity. And that's a primary function of the coaching staff.

I know we've had our fair share of discussion on Johnny Jones here this season, and I definitely fall on the critical side. I know some of you think I have it out for him. Let me assure you: I am not rooting for him to fail, and I will be the first to admit that he's been a net positive for the program. Still, I don't know how you can watch this team continually throw games away against so obviously inferior teams and defend the kind of in-game coach he is. The run-stunting timeouts constantly seem to be two possessions too late. The offense can get lost in the wilderness for full halves at a time and the defense can suddenly don matador capes despite having the league's most prolific shot blocker. It all came to a head again on Wednesday night.

And that ultimately worries me going forward, because Jones can get the players in here. Next year's haul is full of studs, but I wonder just how much we can expect to win with them. After all, LSU is thoroughly on the bubble now, with a road game at Arkansas left. And this is all with two years of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, yet we are left waiting for the consistency needed to make the Big Dance.

Make no mistake, this game was a disastrous defeat. According to Joe Lunardi via the SEC Network post-game telecast, the loss sent LSU back to the Last Four In category, which right now would mean a trip to Dayton for the dreaded First 4 game. For a team that owns a win at West Virginia and has won 3 out of 5 games against the current Nos. 3-5 teams in the SEC, that's downright baffling.

You will hear a lot from Jones, the players and other reporters about how well Tennessee played. And that's true. But you don't shoot 70 percent and score 45 points in the second half without a doormat to walk over. You don't get 11 offensive rebounds in the first half on the road without the home team being a little lazy. You don't score 24 points above your average for the last 3 weeks without some flat-footed defense. The list just goes on.

Some credit to the Vols for taking it to LSU, but the result ultimately says a lot more about the Tigers than it does UT. When the team needed to consolidate a three-game winning streak and finally reach a place of comfort with their postseason fate, they laid an egg. Plain and simple.

Keith Hornsby was about the only LSU player to show up, tossing in 25 points without a turnover in 38 minutes. Jarell Martin added 16 but that came with a sub-par rebounding performance, foul trouble and four turnovers. Jordan Mickey remains lost in the wilderness, notching his fifth consecutive game without a double-double and again finished below his season averages in points and rebounds while only taking seven shots against an undersized UT frontline. Tim Quarterman was a liability shooting the ball and turned it over four times, Jalyn Patterson was uncharacteristically rattled to the point of having his first outing without scoring since the Ole Miss game on Jan. 14.

Much like their best wins, it was a team effort, from the coaches to the players to, yes, the fans, who continue to not show up the way they would at any other program who is playing for its NCAA Tournament life. Though it's hard to blame them when expectations get heightened and LSU delivers a demoralizing performance like this.

The season is not over, and the team still has a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Which would be a success. No question about it. But would anyone really count on this team to get the job done after this game? Given that Tennessee is all of a .500 team — not in the SEC, but overall — the doubt is damning enough.