Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Magic at the PMAC

The 2018-19 LSU Tigers men’s basketball season has been a campaign for the ages involving seven overtime contests, upset victories, a looming FBI investigation, and the Tigers’ first SEC Regular Season Championship in a decade. LSU is averaging over 80 points per game (81.6) for the first time since the 1993-94 season (80.0) and their position at 10th in the AP Poll is the program’s highest ranking since reaching 5th in 2006-2007 season.

The Bayou Bengals finished the regular season with a 26-5 overall record and will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament with a 16-2 conference mark. LSU’s 16 conference wins are the second most in school history after the program won 17 games back in the 1980-1981 campaign. After securing the hardware for the regular season, LSU now has a legitimate shot to double down and win their first SEC Tournament Championship since 1980.

Assessing their overall record, four of LSU’s victories have come against ranked opponents. In mid-December, they defeated the then No. 24 ranked Furman Paladins 75-57 at home. Given that Furman is 25-6 and third in the Southern Conference standings, this win still looks very good on LSU’s resume.

Fast-forward to the third game of conference play in mid-January when an unranked LSU went into Oxford and bested the then No. 18 ranked Ole Miss Rebels 83-69 in mid-January. Even though Ole Miss went on to drop four of their next five after the LSU loss, the Rebels finished sixth overall in the SEC standings and stand at 20-11.

The two sweetest Tiger victories of the season would come about a month later. Facing a then No. 5 ranked Kentucky Wildcats team who had won 10 games in a row, LSU relied on a last-second tip-in from Kavell Bigby-Williams to escape with a stunning 73-71 upset win at Rupp Arena.

11 days later, LSU would again match up against the No. 5 team in the country when the Tennessee Volunteers came to town. Overtime would be needed and last second heroics would again take the forefront. Taking the place of an ill Tremont Waters, freshman Ja’vonte Smart sank two free throws with less than a second remaining to propel LSU to an 82-80 victory.

Both games would be difference makers, as Kentucky finished at 26-5 and Tennessee finished at 27-4. Both teams were just one game behind LSU in the SEC standings, giving the Tigers an outright conference championship.

Looking at LSU’s five losses, they can be split into “quality losses” and “bad losses”. Let’s look at the quality losses first. In mid-November, the Tigers suffered an overtime loss to the then No. 14 ranked Florida State Seminoles in the AdvoCare Invitational Semifinal by a score of 79-76. The Seminoles have climbed and fallen in the rankings throughout the year, but currently they sit at No. 14 with a 23-6 overall record. This is not a bad loss.

Three games later in mid-December, LSU traveled to Houston and at one point held a 14-point lead on the then No. 24 ranked Cougars before losing 82-76. Houston finished the regular season as the No. 12 ranked team in the nation with a 27-2 record and losses to Temple and UCF. Though the Houston game was one that LSU should have definitely won, this is not a bad loss either.

Now the three bad losses for LSU are sprinkled throughout their schedule. After losing a heartbreaker to Florida State, LSU dropped their next game to the Oklahoma State Cowboys by a score of 90-77. Oklahoma State wound up second-to-last in the Big 12 with a 12-19 record.

After the Oklahoma State loss, the Tigers ripped off a 10-game winning streak before falling at home to Arkansas by a score of 90-89 due to poor late-game play calling. Arkansas ended the regular season in the bottom five of the SEC with a 17-14 record on the year.

Finally, LSU’s last regular season loss came in mid-February when the Florida Gators came into Baton Rouge and shocked the Tigers with an 82-77 overtime win. The Gators finished the regular season 17-14 and are one of the last four teams projected to even make the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the tough loss to Florida, LSU remained in the driver’s seat and won their final five games of the regular season to win the SEC. They are now guaranteed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season and are currently a projected No. 3 seed in the West bracket according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.

If this projection comes to fruition, LSU would have their highest tournament seed since the 1980-81 season. That year, LSU was a No. 1 seed and lost to the eventual National Champion Indiana Hoosiers in the National Semifinal.

Though much credit should be given to head coach Will Wade in just his second season at the helm (amidst rumors of his alleged connection to the college basketball corruption scandal), the players making the magic happen on the court should not be overlooked.

Here’s a quick glance at the team leaders for the Tigers throughout the regular season. In the blocks department, senior forward Kavell Bigby-Williams leads the team with 2.0 blocks per game. In free throw percentage, junior guard Skylar Mays has converted 85.5% of his shots from the charity strike. Sophomore guard Tremont Waters leads the team in a plethora of categories as he is averaging 15.3 points, 6.9 assists, and 3.1 steals per game. Rounding out the group, highly touted freshman forward Naz Reid leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game.

Winning the SEC Tournament would be the next logical step for this LSU team to take, but the bigger goal is only two weeks away. If LSU can rip off six more victories in mid-March going into early-April, then they will bring home the first basketball national championship in school history.