BATON ROUGE, La. — No matter what happens the rest of the LSU basketball season, things are moving in the right direction.
That’s a very literal assessment. With 13 games left in the regular season, the Tigers have already surpassed the overall win total from last season. Fans have to be happy with the direction in which first-year coach Will Wade has this program moving.
In fact, he’s got it moving so quickly that LSU fans are now reckoning with an emotion they never could have imagined experiencing this season — frustration.
The Tigers came into the Tuesday night game against Georgia as one of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament field. The Bulldogs were one of the other teams listed on that bubble. With a full two months left on the schedule, it’s way too early to call this a make-or-break game for either team. But it was certainly a chance for LSU to assert itself as a legitimate tournament hopeful.
As LSU’s 61-60 defeat to the Bulldogs showed, this program is agonizingly close to being ready for prime time. But the Tigers aren’t quite there yet.
Tournament teams defend their home floor, which LSU has failed to do thus far in SEC play. Considering how well they played at Texas A&M and Arkansas, the Tigers are a surprising 0-3 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in conference games.
“We’ve got to make winning plays,” Wade said. “We just didn’t make winning plays.”
The ultimate winning play in this game was made by 6-foot-4 Georgia wing Juwan Parker, who snagged an offensive rebound off a missed Bulldogs 3-pointer with 20 seconds left. That rebound allowed Georgia to call a timeout and set up its winning play, a go-ahead Yante Maten layup with 5.9 seconds left.
Freshman guard Tremont Waters, whose brilliant buzzer-beater gave the Tigers their win at A&M, pulled the trigger too early on his attempt to repeat those heroics against Georgia. With freshmen, these things are prone to happen.
That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for fans.
This is the the third time LSU has missed a buzzer-beater on its home floor this year. Brandon Sampson missed a potential game-tying 3 in a 74-71 loss to Kentucky, and Aaron Epps misfired on a layup in an 83-82 loss to Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 16. Make all of those shots and LSU is sitting pretty with a 13-4 or 14-3 record and an increasingly attractive tournament résumé.
Of course, there is a flip side to that. LSU would have lost to A&M without Waters’ improbable 3, and could have lost to Houston in overtime if he hadn’t blocked the Cougars game-tying attempt at the end of regulation on Dec. 13. The Tigers also survived a last-second shot in their 77-75 win over Michigan at the Maui Invitational.
In other words, things have evened out. The Tigers are the 11-6 team they appear to be. It’s a much better place than where the Tigers were a year ago — yet it’s still a handful of plays away from being something truly satisfying.