There are tiers to losses, and LSU's loss in Columbia on Wednesday night needs to be given proper perspective.
SEC teams are winning more than 70 percent of league home games this season. South Carolina is a top 50 team in RPI and per KenPom, not to mention 20th in one poll and 26th in another. The Gamecocks also entered the night 20-3 overall, 14-0 at home.
Plus, and this is an important read, winning road games in college basketball (especially in league play) is tough. So tough that "Beating the 90th-ranked team on the road is about as difficult as beating the 50th-best team on a neutral floor, which is roughly as difficult as beating the 20th-best team on one’s home floor." Even the best teams in college basketball, of which LSU is not one, are routinely losing road games to teams far worse than South Carolina.
It all leads me to this game, in particular. There are a lot of bones to pick with Johnny Jones and this team, and they built up no goodwill with their pre-Christmas performance. There's a lot of deserved criticism from years of underachieving LSU basketball, but this is not the game to build your case with.
Yet the rancor and expectations have informed so much of what we're seeing now, which is abject panic from a fanbase that wants to ignore that LSU is still tied for first in the SEC in favor of "first pitch in nine days." Again, I won't tell you how to spend your time, but judging LSU harshly with a bunch of uninformed hot takes due to a closely-contested loss against a NCAA Tournament team on the road is just ignorant.
Don't get me wrong. LSU had its chances to come away with a win that could have essentially narrowed the field down to the Tigers and Kentucky for the SEC title. Every time LSU made a run, it seemed to throw it away with a turnover or commit a cheap foul on the Gamecocks. They didn't play with a whole lot of maturity.
That being said, South Carolina also played well. The Gamecocks made 48 percent of their shots, many of them contested from 15 feet and beyond. South Carolina also did what it does best, locking down defensively, winning a ton of hustle plays and snaring a bunch of offensive rebounds. Could LSU have done better, been better prepared? Sure. But South Carolina has done and will do something similar to many solid teams this year.
And this was one of the rare games I can get behind the notion that it was a player's loss, anyway. LSU's been a 70 percent free-throw shooting team this season but absolutely bricked a bunch from the stripe in the first half, keeping the Tigers from taking a lead with Ben Simmons, Craig Victor II and Antonio Blakeney in early foul trouble. And with them in foul trouble the whole game, Carolina went down low in the second half and took advantage of the quick-whistled bunch -- seriously, the last two LSU games Pat Adams has reffed have included 55 fouls per contest.
Then there's the curious case of Tim Quarterman. The junior guard has been so mercurial, so inconsistent this season and it arguably cost LSU the game against USC. He produced just seven points in 31 minutes, turned the ball over at crucial junctures and fouled out. He's a taller, better matchup for Carolina than Jalyn Patterson, but given the way Patterson shot the ball early, Quarterman probably shouldn't have played nearly as much.
That's a major problem for LSU. Quarterman was thought to be a possible first-round talent coming into this season and just runs so hot and cold. The Tigers cannot rely on him. He'll show up big-time in games against Kentucky, Oklahoma and the first half against Texas A&M. Then he'll come out and look totally lost on the road, when he's played in 70+ career games now. He's just 3-for-19 beyond the arc in the last four conference games. You can play well, which LSU did for large swaths of the night, and not counteract a total no-show from your starting point guard.
Also, let's just put some things to rest. If I never hear another legitimate criticism of Ben Simmons as a college player, I'll be content. He'd be wrecking college hoops at a Kansas or a Kentucky. But he's playing with guys like Quarterman and Josh Gray, plus backups like Elbert Robinson and Aaron Epps. There's no consistency from his teammates game to game, and it somehow ends up reflecting poorly on him despite always taking every team's best shot? I won't hear of it.
Simmons came out and dominated large portions of the second half, but LSU still didn't find him enough on the block, still didn't run enough sets for him and still reverted to taking 3-pointers instead of feeding he and Victor when Carolina's entire frontcourt had four fouls in the final seven minutes. 20 points, six rebounds and six assists -- totally ho-hum despite missing the final eight minutes of the first half.
I'll also save some kudos for Antonio Blakeney. The other five-star freshman from this year's recruiting class continues to become LSU's go-to perimeter scorer. His shot is finally falling, and his hops allow him to be dangerous on pull-up jumpers and put-backs, alike. He poured in 22 points on four 3-pointers. If LSU could get consistent play from one of its point guards, Blakeney and Keith Hornsby are more than capable of putting teams away.
This all sounds very mild, perhaps even positive considering LSU lost. And I'll admit, the Tigers could have used the win, especially with a desperate A&M team coming to the PMAC this Saturday. But it's also important to note that college basketball is such a long haul. There are two sure-thing NCAA teams ineligible for this year's dance. The bubble is weak as hell, especially among mid-majors. Losses happen on the road in the league all the time (Seriously, Kentucky and Carolina lost at Tennessee and Georgia, respectively, last week). LSU is 11-5 when Craig Victor and Keith Hornsby both play, with four of those losses to NCAA Tournament teams.
So be mad as hell, expect better of this program. The Tigers are capable of more. I'm with you to an extent: Johnny Jones deserves some criticism.
But this game isn't the backbone for that kind of ire. LSU has avoided truly bad SEC losses this season, so far a positive step forward for this program. Remember last year, when the Tigers lost to Auburn twice, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Missouri? All teams outside the top 100 in the RPI? Those are the losses that speak negatively on your team. That's what constitutes choking when you have superior talent. This year's team, at full strength, has won the games it's supposed to.
Put this loss in its proper place and get ready for a huge home game against the Aggies. A win there and this loss is largely meaningless, unless you're looking for a reason to pick apart this team in the first place.