The LSU women’s basketball team entered the 2015 season with modest expectations. What it finished with was humbling results. It was the kind of the season that opens the Pandora’s Box of speculation about how one of the elite programs reached this point and how can it, at the very least, improve for next season.
Let’s not forget that this team was voted ninth in the pre-season SEC poll. 2015 wasn’t expected to be a great team from the start, though that doesn’t entirely justify how bad this past season was. Most of the year was spent with the Tigers in the cellar of the SEC. This year marks the lowest win total since the 1994-1995 season and the single-season record for most losses.
If time heals all wounds, the Tigers had excess wounds and not enough time this past season. Raigyne Moncrief and Ayana Mitchell were expected to be major contributors and both missed the majority of the season due to injury. On multiple occasions the Tiger roster included just six or seven healthy scholarship players. No team at any level of Division I basketball can expect to have any sort of success with such a depleted roster.
For the 2016-2017 season, a healthy Moncrief, Mitchell, and Alexis Hyder gives the Tigers what should be a formidable trio. Factor in 11 other players with remaining eligibility, NC State transfer Chloe Jackson becoming eligible, three top-60 high school recruits coming in and issues with depth should be resolved.
While the short term concerns with the team seem to have clear resolutions, the same cannot be said about the long-term future of the program. Even passive followers of the women’s basketball team can’t deny that this program has declined in the last several seasons.
Should you need proof or confirmation, WAFB ran a piece providing all the numbers needed to show the program is in a decline since the 2000's. In summation, wins are down, revenue is down, and attendance is down. Perhaps the most eye-brow raising part of the WAFB segment was that Nikki Fargas is the fourth highest paid LSU head coach. A case could be made in previous years that the women’s basketball team was the fourth "best" program on campus, but certainly not now. If nothing else, Beth Torina and D-D Breaux deserve raises.
Based on what is known about the decline, there are two ways to look at this last season. The first way is to think that the 15-16 season was evidence that Fargas has failed as a recruiter and this past season was the start of the LSU women’s basketball program entering a period of irrelevance if left in her hands. The other way believes that this year is something of a fluke due to the injuries and that although Fargas has not made a deep post season run since coming to Baton Rouge, she has still made LSU one of the best teams in the SEC and almost always lands an NCAA Tournament bid year in and year out. Somewhere in the middle of those two is probably the correct answer.
A few will take time to state the inevitable "Fire Nikki." Her salary and program expectations do not correlate, but it’d be foolish to look past how many other programs nationally would kill to have a resume like the one the Tigers have under Fargas. Nikki’s previous employer UCLA hasn’t done noticeably better in her absence.
Firing Nikki does not guarantee a step in the right direction. It’d be hard to pry an all-star caliber coach from anywhere when the program is coming off its worse season. Even if this was coming of an NCAA Tournament appearance, paying an all-star coach would likely put the salary around a million dollars. That would pay more than Paul Mainieri. In case you haven’t heard, spending money on a coaching change is kind of a bad look right now.
The alternative to an All-Star coach is an up and comer, essentially what Nikki was when she left UCLA after just three seasons. An unknown commodity doesn’t exactly guarantee the high levels the fan base has been accustomed to, as evidenced by Nikki’s performance.
Perhaps Nikki isn’t the long term solution and the noticeable decline certainly backs that argument, but she is returning for next year- so she controls the short term solution.
The women’s team was half of what has been one of the most underwhelming seasons in the history of LSU hoops. Just like the men’s team, the administration and coaching staff will have a long off-season to figure out what needs to happen to make LSU women's basketball return to a respectable level.