By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Joe Alleva took in LSU’s 81-66 loss to Alabama on Saturday from the bleachers a few rows up from the Tigers’ bench.
Like the rest of those in attendance with LSU allegiances, he can’t have liked what he saw.
With the game tied at 56 with five minutes to play, the Tigers gave up 25 points in crunch time. When the clock expired, it signaled not just the fifth loss in six games for LSU, but the growing likelihood that Johnny Jones has never been in more danger of losing his job.
That it was a loss to Alabama – coached by Baton Rouge native Avery Johnson and buoyed by 24 points from Corban Collins, a freshman guard on Jones’ first LSU team – seems only too fitting. Disregarding any parallels to the Tigers’ struggles with the Tide on the gridiron, Alabama began this downward spiral for LSU with its last visit to Baton Rouge, a 76-69 win over Jones’ bunch on Feb. 17 of last season.
Entering that game, LSU was fresh off a home win over Sweet 16-bound Texas A&M and looked bound for March Madness. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi pegged LSU, then tied with Kentucky (who they’d already beaten) atop the SEC, as a No. 7 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Then Alabama came to town, and the wheels fell off. LSU led 46-38 with 15:49 to play, giving the Tigers, according to KenPom, an 89.2% chance of victory. But Bama senior Retin Obasohan scored 23 second half points, Ben Simmons took just four shots and missed eight free throws in the game’s final 20 minutes, and the Tide outscored the Tigers 14-7 down the stretch to hand LSU the first of three straight SEC losses.
Last season, Alabama was the first killer blow in a series that saw the Tigers go from single-digit NCAA Tournament seed to no postseason play whatsoever, the first team to miss the tournament with the No. 1 pick since Michael Olawakandi and Pacific in 1998.
This year, Alabama follows Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State’s punches, but there will almost certainly be more to come. Jones’ path to a cooler seat is, to be kind, quite difficult.
Three of LSU’s next four games are on the road. They’ll be underdogs in all of them. The lone home game? Against Florida, currently ranked No. 13 in the nation by KenPom.
Looking long term at the Tigers’ schedule, they probably won’t be favored in any game the rest of the season. Home against Auburn on Feb. 21 may be the lone exception. Wins have been tough to come by for the Tigers. They will only get tougher.
Any possible success depends massively on the health of Antonio Blakeney, who went down late in Saturday’s loss against Alabama with an apparent ankle injury that will cost him at least one practice. He’s very much questionable for Wednesday’s trip to Auburn. The 15-point deficit when the clock expired against Alabama was painful enough. Any time Blakeney misses adds literal injury to insult.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I’ve won everywhere I’ve been. And, I’m used to having setbacks, as well. I’m a competitor. Nobody wants to win more than I do. I don’t get caught up in those things.” – Johnny Jones on external criticism [/perfectpullquote]
Meanwhile, Jones will have to navigate his team through choppy waters during a time in which his job has never been more in jeopardy.
After three steps forward in his first three seasons – from 19 wins and no postseason play to 20 wins and an NIT berth and finally to 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance – LSU has taken two giant steps back in the last season-and-a-half. It will take an incredible turnaround for Jones to feel any sort of job security by the season’s end.
I wouldn’t predict that sort of turnaround, but I wouldn’t have predicted last season’s collapse, either.
For his part, Jones is remaining removed from any criticism of his work.
“I don’t get caught up in that,” he told me last week. “I coach for a living. I’ve been doing this for some 30-odd years. I’ve won everywhere I’ve been. And, I’m used to having setbacks, as well. I’m a competitor. Nobody wants to win more than I do. I don’t get caught up in those things. We just got to make sure we coach our team, try to get them to be the best they can. When things are going well, and you’re winning games, and at the top of the league and selling tickets or having top recruiting classes, I don’t get caught up in that either. We just like to do our job and continue to compete. That’s how I take this approach.”
That approach served Jones well when things were trending in the right direction. But two losses to Alabama – one last year, one last week – serve as a certain symbol that the tide has turned on his tenure. Alleva will be watching closely the rest of the season, and fair or not, Jones is running out of time to right the ship.