You can go ahead and bury this LSU basketball season.
In tremendous shape for a NCAA Tournament bid a mere six days ago (it feels oh-so-much longer), at 16-12 the Tigers have officially torched their resume. Barring a near-miracle run through the SEC Tournament in two weeks, there will be no March Madness for LSU, an abject failure in one of the most-hyped seasons in program history.
It was all on display Tuesday night in Fayetteville. The Tigers were entirely lackadaisical on defense, too lenient on the glass, had no offense to speak of for large swaths of the game and just played careless. Arkansas is not even an NIT team and the Hogs just took it to LSU for about 25 of the game's 40 minutes.
It was, frankly, an embarrassing effort, especially when the team pretty much laid down when the lead ballooned to a dozen in the final six minutes. The loose balls mostly went Arky's way, and LSU didn't look like a team who came together down three rotation contributors. The Tigers instead looked like a team divided, fractured exactly when they needed some fortitude.
But please, for the love of all holy, please do not put this on Mr. Ben Simmons. With Hornsby absent and no Epps or Elbert Robinson, he was tasked with carrying an offense without its best 3-point shooter and any semblance of inside depth. Plus, Arkansas was packing it in purely to guard him, since LSU has little other credible offense. Simmons still put up 23 points, 12 rebounds and six assists on a combined 17-of-27 shooting. He's the first player since Draymond Green to average a 20-10-5 this late in the season.
LSU just doesn't have anything else. Antonio Blakeney was fine, though his 22 points were partly compiled in some late garbage time. He's a great corner shooter and this was as much an audition to be the main man next year as anything. Victor added 11, but he was pretty quiet and couldn't play tough defense thanks to some bad early fouls.
LSU got exactly zero points from the bench. Darcy hoisted a 3-pointer. Brandon Sampson missed his only trey attempt. Josh Gray was good for a pair of turnovers in three minutes. Even Jalyn Patterson (who started), was a putrid 2-for-10 shooting, including two misses on easy transition lay-ups. It was a trainwreck all around.
And I don't want to hear any excuses about the absences. Hornsby, Elbert and Epps are not 20-point difference makers against a bad Hogs squad, even in Bud Walton Arena. The fact LSU absolutely HAD to win this game was a bigger problem than the fact it lost. What made it embarrassing was how the Tigers STILL played with so little discipline in such a must-win game.
And that's getting to the crux of the matter. Ah yes, we finally talk about Johnny Jones.
I've been a noted longtime critic of him (although I've always believed, pretty damn fairly), and there were a lot of passes given to him this season. There's a slew of good reasons, from Hornsby and Victor missing the first seven games to a strong SEC start, but this team -- and by extension, its coach -- cannot be defended anymore. This was the final straw: Jones has failed this team, never meshing the plethora of talent on the roster and consolidating it into on-court results.
The program is at a bit of a crossroads. Is it fair to question Jones' job status? I'm skeptical that he'll actually be let go, although Joe Alleva's critical comments last Friday are making me at least reconsider. But remember, this is the same administration that gave JJ an extension and a raise after his first two years. You know, when he went 18-18 in the SEC with Johnny O'Bryant III and then Jarell Martin/Jordan Mickey for year two. So get your hopes up for a change at your own peril.
Now, whether it's fair? I think Tuesday's drubbing leaves no doubt. Johnny Jones is Dale-Brown lite, a recruiting buzzsaw who can't get out of his own way during the course of a game. He's shown no ability to scale Brown's heights as a motivator, either, with LSU getting up for huge games but always playing back down to its competition. Like Brown, he does his best work with a scrappy group, but he hasn't had that kind of team for three years now.
The way I see it: What good is bringing in a Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, a Brandon Sampson or Tim Quarterman, a Martin and Mickey, if he can't win a tournament game with these recruits? LSU was frankly lucky to make it to the NCAA Tournament last year with five sub-100 RPI losses and they've matched that dubious total again this season. For the second time in three years, a trio of future NBA players will likely suit up in the NIT at LSU.
I don't think any LSU fans wish Johnny Jones ill will, as a person. He's a likable figure who has connected well with the fanbase off the floor, appealed to the hoops alums and stabilized a program known for some heavy mood swings from 1994-2012. Even if this collapse continues, LSU should finish above .500 for a fourth-consecutive year, just the second time to do so since Shaq was here. Is that really what the measuring stick for this program should be?
Most Tiger fans could live with mediocre results if they didn't often look come about about like they did at Arkansas. A host of future pros wasted by stagnant offense sets, run-stunting timeouts two possessions too late and another promising season derailed by indefensible losses.
The season isn't officially over, and LSU has the talent to do something weird like roll through Nashville, particularly in this year's SEC. But that would be exactly the type of inconsistency which drives LSU basketball's already-noncommittal fanbase crazy.
The program as a whole may be fairly stable (or stalled, depending on how you look at it) yet the actual product on the court remains maddening and unpredictable. That's a problem we'll see if LSU wants to address any time soon.