Well, this is weird.
It’s February – the back half of it, to be more specific – and it’s actually worth sitting down and doing a bracketology analysis of LSU basketball.
One year removed from a historic losing season, in which LSU lost 15 straight games and finished 2-16 in the SEC, and in a season in which the Tigers were picked to finish last in the SEC, LSU heads into the final two weeks of the regular season with a chance, however slim, of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection.
Why? Good wins. A bunch of them already in hand, and more to be grabbed ahead.
Fresh off a 64-63 win over Missouri, ranked No. 23 in the RPI heading into the weekend, LSU is 15-11 overall, 6-8 in a deep, respected SEC. The Tigers have seven Quadrant 1 wins – the sixth-most nationally, and more than Duke and Michigan State combined – and seven top-50 RPI wins.
In fact, LSU is 6-3 against the RPI top 25. Those six top-25 wins are the most in the country. That’s a substantial figure and a hell of a bullet point on a resume.
Where does all that put LSU at the moment?
TeamRankings.com puts LSU’s chances of making the tournament at-large at 9.6% – slim, but substantial. If there were a 9.6% chance you’d win the lottery this week, you’d damn sure buy a ticket and watch the drawing.
From this writer’s perspective, LSU is still on the outside looking in – not on the bubble, per se, but the bubble is within reach.
And there’s a path, however difficult it might be to navigate, the Tigers can follow to the Dance.
TeamRankings gives LSU a 44.3 percent chance of obtaining an at-large bid if it gets to 20 wins, and an 80.4 percent chance if it gets to 21 wins.
Where could those five to six wins come from?
The obvious answer is to win out in the regular season – beating Vanderbilt at home, South Carolina and Georgia on the road, and Mississipi State at home again – before winning a game in the SEC Tournament. That also does LSU the favor of handing defeats to Mississippi State and Georgia, both of whom sit on the bubble. It’s just difficult to expect LSU to win four games in a row in the league when it hasn’t won two in a row since January.
The more realistic option, I think, is to win three of those four – the two home games and one of the road games (preferably Georgia, to level the season series) – and win a pair in the SEC Tournament. Given the right matchups, it’s doable.
Even splitting the four left leaves the door cracked heading into the SEC Tournament, where a run to the finals could put the Tigers through. Winning the whole thing in St. Louis, of course, solves the problem most directly but is certainly the toughest of the tasks.
All that said, the smart money is still on LSU making the NIT. The bubble is quite thick this year, full of mid-majors like Middle Tennessee State worthy of at-large bids. If those teams win their conference tournaments, it frees up spots for teams like LSU, but it requires, like Vanderbilt did a year ago, a hot finish.
The NIT, however, is a fitting destination for this team, which can play with any in the country, given the matchup, but struggles mightily at times to get stops and to create offense when Tremont Waters is off. While the NCAA Tournament would be an incredible accomplishment – I’ve said it before…if it happens, just name Will Wade National Coach of the Year on the spot – the NIT would offer this team a platform for postseason play in the PMAC and a springboard into a 2018-19 season with high expectations based on what comes back and what joins the fold (hint: a No. 3 ranked recruiting class).
It also offers LSU a chance to make a run in the postseason. TCU followed a similar path a year ago, winning the whole thing, and is now likely tournament bound. It’s always preferable to make the Big Dance, but a deep NIT run has the potential to do almost as much good long term.
Even that NIT bid isn’t wrapped up, though. I’d guess the magic number there is 18 wins to feel certain of a berth. If LSU gets to 17, that might be enough, given its quality wins at the top. If eight SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament and LSU finishes ninth or tenth, that would give the Tigers one of the two NIT invites the conference can usually bank on.
LSU Rankings Update