It's truly an invigorating time of year in south Louisiana.
Daylight Saving Time brings longer evenings of warm sunshine and everywhere you look, things are becoming green. Our delicious boiled crawfish have grown to the perfect size, outdoor music festivals will soon be going strong and people simply have an extra pep in their step.
Selection Sunday should've added another uplifting boost of excitement to this spring for LSU fans, with the Tigers' name appearing on the unveiled NCAA Tournament brackets and the team heading to a city like Denver, Oklahoma City or St Louis to participate in March Madness. But we all know that's hardly what transpired.
For all practical purposes, the Tigers blew their shot at the NCAA Tournament weeks and months ago, losing to teams like Marquette, NC State, Arkansas, Charleston, Tennessee and Wake Forest - schools with RPIs somewhere between 111 and 159. A huge opportunity likewise slipped away in late January, as the Tigers led No. 1 Oklahoma at home by 14 points in the second half, only to lose a 77-75 heartbreaker. LSU's final flickering NCAA hopes were crushed with Saturday's "Nightmare in Nashville" against Texas A&M in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Amazingly, the Tigers trailed 68-28 late, before making the final score slightly more cosmetic in the astonishing 71-38 shellacking.
Despite the historically awful showing (the fewest points scored by a team at the SEC Tournament since 1985 and the fewest by LSU in the event since 1946), head coach Johnny Jones and his players were adamant they didn't quit and played with great energy against A&M - they just couldn't make any shots. Well, the latter was certainly true as the Tigers amazingly missed 50 of the 63 shots they took for a mind boggling 20.6 percent. Sunday, however, LSU collectively waived the white flag of surrender and indeed quit, declining a bid to the NIT and pulling the plug on a season that will be remembered as a devastating disappointment.
Preseason expectations are dictating that crushing feeling because those expectations were very high. LSU began the season ranked No. 21 in the country and as we all know, generated nationwide excitement with the addition of freshman phenom Ben Simmons, still projected by many to be the No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft. Former Louisville commitment and 5-star guard Antonio Blakeney was also coming aboard, along with sophomore forward and Arizona transfer Craig Victor, with local product and talented guard Brandon Sampson being another welcomed addition. Those newcomers combined with veterans like Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman, Jalyn Patterson and Josh Gray had fans in Baton Rouge truly excited about basketball again.
And let's get this out of the way - the LSU fans did their part and then some this season. The Tigers averaged 11,383 fans per home game, up from 8,897 last year. LSU also registered crowds of 12,000 or more eight times. The LSU team simply didn't reciprocate fully.
We can go through the excuses why and boy, we've heard them all - from the officiating to "we're young" and obviously, the most credible, Hornsby and Victor both missing significant playing time for different reasons. But in the end, most people - local and national - have come to the conclusion LSU fell far short of its potential.
In the eyes of many, Simmons didn't live up to his expectations. Maybe we were expecting him to leave us in absolute awe every night, like Chris Jackson once did in the late 80s. But whose fault is that? And why are we remotely let down by a 19-year old who was named SEC Freshman of the Year and racked up 23 double doubles?
Again, expectations and hype.
ESPN's relentless coverage of Simmons was just too much. I'll never forget being at the Texas Bowl the night LSU throttled Texas Tech, watching SportsCenter's highlights of the LSU - Wake Forest basketball game. ESPN literally aired a montage of Simmons' best plays, didn't show a single Wake Forest bucket and then announced the Deacons actually won the game 77-71.
That's good storytelling?
Craig Victor tied Simmons for the game high in points with 16 and had the last second, game-winning put back in LSU's thrilling 76-74 win over Arkansas in mid-January. Did ESPN interview Victor on the floor after the game? Nope. The network chose Simmons again.
I sometimes wondered if Simmons went 1-15 from the floor in the first half, would the broadcasters then tell us how amazing he played during intermission? The narrative too often seemed predetermined and forced. No matter what, Ben Simmons is the greatest thing you've ever seen and we're going to tell you about it at nauseam.
Again, that's no fault of Simmons, who, despite a million interview requests and countless people yanking on him all year, remained overwhelmingly polite and courteous with the media. He's not the program director at ESPN Radio, deciding to announce during each top of the hour break who "Ben Simmons and the LSU Tigers" are playing tonight. And again, the kid averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Regardless, the nonstop exposure just wears on people, especially when their team doesn't reach the NCAA Tournament.
LSU's "25 is Coming" campaign before the season began without question further fueled expectations and escalated the pressure on Simmons and the team alike. The large billboards around town drew national criticism and were a bit of a lightning rod for some people. Before the year, everyone in the LSU camp embraced the idea, as many more argued the school would be stupid not to market Simmons and his great talent prominently. However, Jones seemed to distance himself from the concept a tad recently, saying the LSU marketing department is basically responsible for such decisions.
Simmons will likely be a multi-millionaire in a matter of months, but the paid professional in all of this is Coach Johnny Jones. The national media has shown absolutely no mercy to Jones, blasting him repeatedly on television, radio and social media for his handling of this year's LSU team.
Piling on Jones is not my place or something I want to do. Instead, here are some of the concerns we hear from fans.
For one, LSU's halfcourt offense is tremendously stagnant and has zero flow. Watching the Tigers against Texas A&M on Saturday, it's hard to argue this point. Often times, it appears four guys are staring at one guy dribbling the basketball, as the shot clock proceeds to tick down towards zero. Eventually, someone hoists a prayer from the parking lot that hits glass or nothing at all. Sometimes, the Tigers let the shot clock expire altogether and often struggle to catch passes cleanly, watching them hit their hands and then bounce away for turnovers. LSU had six turnovers in its first 13 possessions Saturday.
Second, many LSU fans believe motivating a team and having them ready to play falls squarely at Jones' feet. He's the coach, right? For a squad with LSU's perceived talent to score the fewest points of any college basketball team from a major conference all season (Boston College had 40 vs Syracuse on 1/13/16) was a national embarrassment on a pretty big stage Saturday.
And it basically led to the Tigers tapping out before there was another. LSU's decision to end the year seems to be a pretty controversial one amongst fans. Many believe it was the right move, saying the season needs to be put out of its misery and end now. Many others think athletics is about fighting to the end and never quitting, no matter the adversity or circumstances.
Regardless, no postseason play for this squad was simply unthinkable back in November.
Captain Obvious here, but LSU's team chemistry seemed totally nonexistent (particularly after Hornsby's final departure), despite an August trip to Australia and other activities that were supposed to get a jump on that aspect tremendously. It's certainly not the first time an LSU basketball team had tremendous talent and didn't jive. A year after the Tigers reached the Final Four, the 2006-07 Tigers started the season ranked No. 5 in the nation and featured such players as Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell. Despite that, LSU finished 17-15 overall, 5-11 in the SEC and missed both the NCAA Tournament and NIT. Sometimes, one Darrel Mitchell or Tyrus Thomas can make a world of difference.
Jones was recently described to me as "the nicest human being ever" by a fellow coach on the LSU campus. When it comes to being personable, sharing his time with fans and understanding the fabric of Fightin' Tiger basketball, he's a master. And that's clearly no accident, having played and coached here during the program's most glorious run with legendary "Daddy" Dale Brown. Everyone who meets Jones seems to like and root for him. He has obviously proven to be a tremendous recruiter, which has likewise caused him to be a bit of a victim of his own success.
Is LSU maximizing its talent? That has been the overwhelming question amongst fans and media alike over the past several years. No postseason tournament with Ben Simmons this year, combined with blowing a 16-point second half lead against North Carolina State in the opening round of last season's NCAA Tournament with future NBA draft selections Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, have fans beyond frustrated and contemplating the program's future under the current regime.
If LSU can't win big now, when will it?
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