Before we even delve into the epic game that was, my apologies on the delay for this recap. With LSU in Houston at Minute Maid Park this weekend, I was preoccupied there, though it did mean getting to watch the Hornsby shot with a bunch of other Tiger fans at a pro-LSU bar right around the corner from the stadium.
Anyways, let's get to it.... right after watching this another 20 times.
Many Tiger fans, when they respond to some of my criticisms of Johnny Jones, have essentially asked me: "What do you want?" or "What do you reasonably expect?."
That. That game is what I want. Because LSU had a sound game plan in as tough a road environment as there is. And stuck to it. They were playing without an elite-level player. And found production from other guys. They took another team's momentum swings in the final minutes. And came right back every time. They even overcame an overwhelming number of crucial 50-50 calls going against them.
In other words, they looked well coached, one of the few times this year it was blatantly obvious. Endless credit to JJ and staff for pulling it out of their hat when they needed it most. That is the team I expect to see on a more consistent basis, because it was truly fun to watch. It instills at least a little faith in the staff going forward.
So how did they do it? Well, it doesn't hurt when Jarell Martin plays like he belongs in the NBA, and really his 27 points (including so many big buckets in traffic) were par for the course for the kind of difference maker he's been over the last month. On Feb. 1, you could have made an argument for either Martin or Jordan Mickey being LSU's best player, MVP, etc and had solid ground to stand on. Saturday's game just cemented that there's no contest anymore. Jarell is The Man on this team.
But with Mickey out, he was still gonna need plenty of help, and LSU got it from the backcourt. Jalyn Patterson staked LSU to its first-half lead, firing in 3 ball after 3 ball that included a pair from the Hog well beyond the arc. He finished with 20 points, just one turnover and a surprising six rebounds in 32 crucial minutes. The freshman responded with aplomb to his scoreless Tennessee fiasco, easily the worst game of his career. LSU has some studs coming in next year — maybe even another 5-star at point guard — but games like this make you think he'll be an invaluable contributor in the rotation no matter how it all shakes out.
So Martin maneuvered inside and Patterson held down the 3-point line but LSU still needed a guy to break down the defense. Enter the oh-so-maligned Josh Gray, though he shouldn't be maligned much anymore. Because the Josh Gray that showed up yesterday was the Josh Gray the Tigers thought they signed from the JuCo ranks. He was efficient handling Arkansas' vaunted press and made the right play almost every time after knifing through the pressure. He had six assists to go along with 10 points and, this is crucial with Gray, just one turnover. I think the frantic pace of the game and the fact he got to ease into it with long stretches on the floor really played to his strengths. For a guy that's spent the last six weeks on the bench while bearing a good deal of criticism, he erased much of that via the best game of his career with everything on the line for LSU.
Of course there's Keith Hornsby, who the blogosphere just found out about and made every LSU fan happier than they thought possible to hear dozens of national analysts finally spouting Bruce Hornsby puns. For much of the game, his best contribution was simply eating up minutes and keeping the Hogs from closing out too much by draining a few pull-up jumpers in the mid range. Other than that, his defense was just okay and he was really LSU's fourth option offensively throughout the afternoon.
But boy, was he the best option when it counted. While the play looked disoriented, the way Hornsby slid into the corner showed some real intangible smarts and also proved that he and Gray have played and practiced together enough to develop some unspoken chemistry. Once Hornsby had the open look, the hard work was done: LSU was all but back in the NCAA Tournament.
That's what this win ultimately does for the Tigers. Barring absolute mayhem in every way possible, LSU will be dancing for the first time since 2009. That's a successful season by almost any measure, though I'd really prefer the Tigers avoid a First Four game in Dayton — it can barely feel like making the tournament if you lose there. If LSU gets revenge on A&M in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, which LSU has a double bye into thanks to somehow finagling the No. 4 seed, there would be no reason to sweat about anything.
Another thing this win again highlighted was how much LSU has messed around this season. No team, save maybe Kansas State, has more claim to the WTF Team of 2014-15 in college basketball. The sheer insanity that is the highs of winning road games like ones at West Virginia, Arkansas and Ole Miss paired with five losses to teams with a 16-14 record or worse, four 100+ RPI losses (2 at home plus 2 road ones vs. 200+ RPI teams) and getting swept by a mediocre Texas A&M squad is unrivaled among bubble teams. What a roller coaster it's been.
Thankfully, the ride finished with one last exhilarating turn, instead of another crash-and-burn situation. The program defied expectations again, this time for the better.
LSU is back, March Madness. Let's have some more fun.