WORSHAM: LSU’s once-promising season is slowly sinking

By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor

More than a century ago, when the Titanic began its slow and inevitable descent to the ocean floor, amid massive panic and rising waters, the ship’s band played on. The eight musicians of the RMS Titanic took not to the lifeboats of the soon-to-be infamous passenger liner, but rather to their instruments, producing a calming soundtrack to the chaos at hand.

Earlier this week, Johnny Jones did his best imitation of those musicians. As LSU’s season was mid-descent, moving out of the NCAA Tournament and into the cold waters of the NIT – the Tigers had just lost back-to-back games against Alabama and at Tennessee, and would go on to lose a third straight at Arkansas the following day – Jones calmly sang the same tune he has all season. Asked if he was happy with his team’s effort, Jones – who, coincidentally, was hired at LSU 100 years to the day of the Titanic’s sinking – didn’t blink.

“Absolutely,” Jones responded. “We are sitting in second place in a very tough league. Would we like to be in first place? For sure. These guys have done an excellent job of positioning ourselves in one of the toughest leagues in the country and have competed at a high level.”

The key word there is “have.” That helping verb indicates a present perfect tense, meaning something that has happened – in this case, LSU competing at a high level – in the recent past. Today, that past seems a little more distant. In the two biggest games of the season, with their NCAA Tournament lives on the line, the Tigers were far from competitive, and now their present is far from perfect.

Losers of three straight games, the Tigers have fallen from sole possession of first place in the SEC and a projected seven seed in the NCAA Tournament to a tie for fourth in the league and out of the tournament picture altogether. Only an SEC Tournament championship, it seems, will get LSU into the dance.

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“You see us get down, you see people’s body language,” says Keith Hornsby. “Where’s your pride in the uniform that you have on? You’re representing LSU.”

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It’s a collapse that – adjusted for scale, of course – mirrors the sinking of the unsinkable ship in 1912. With freshman sensation and future No. 1 (or No. 2) NBA Draft pick Ben Simmons, proven vets Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby, and gifted newcomers Craig Victor and Antonio Blakeney, LSU was all but bound for a smooth sail into March. Instead, they’ve plummeted into the depths of national obscurity, and worse, because of Simmons’ presence, the entire basketball world has watched.

Unlike the Titanic, LSU’s destruction hasn’t been caused by a single fatal collision with a large iceberg. Instead, it’s been a series of smaller impacts that have accumulated into a breach enough to drown the Tigers.

It started with Josh Gray’s suspension for the preseason tour of Australia. As the Tigers toured down under, the senior watched from home because of his participation in an unsanctioned offseason charity game. Gray not only missed valuable on-court minutes with his teammates, but also missed out on the bonding experience of spending 10 days in another country with your teammates offers. Every bit of team chemistry is key in a championship run. Every bit of its absence is key in a collapse.

Then came Hornsby’s injury before the season’s tipoff. The Tigers’ leading returning scorer from a year ago, Hornsby isn’t LSU’s most talented player, but he is its most important. With Hornsby, LSU scores 110 points per 100 possessions, which would rank second in the league behind Kentucky. Without him, LSU scores 103 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 11th in the league behind Florida. Take out the outlier – LSU’s 119 points against North Florida, one of the worst defensive teams in all of college basketball – and the Hornsby-less Tigers post 97 points per 100 possessions, dead last in the conference. When Hornsby’s out against good teams, LSU’s simply can’t score.

More important is the example he sets with his effort and energy. His sprawling dive for a loose ball against Texas A&M sparked LSU’s only win its last six games. He’s a senior who has been to two NCAA Tournaments and knows the importance intensity and focus play into championship-level basketball.

It’s no coincidence, then, that LSU raced out to an 8-2 start in the league play with Hornsby healthy. Jones looked to have righted the ship, despite the rough initial waters, getting wins at Vanderbilt and home versus Kentucky. But even then, the Tigers took on more water, courtesy of splash after Buddy Hield splash. LSU lost a 14-point second half lead in a 77-75 loss against No. 1 Oklahoma, as Simmons failed to score and offered just a single field goal attempt in the game’s final 10 minutes (Hield scored 15 of his 32 points in that same stretch). Some chalked the loss up as a moral victory, but hindsight reveals it as a critical omission in the Tigers’ resume.

Finally came the collapse, five losses in six games to sink lower and lower in the SEC standings. The national spotlight on Simmons seemed to take its toll on his teammates (several of whom no longer follow him on Twitter, for whatever that’s worth). On the floor, Simmons continued to put up plenty of points, rebounds and assists, but stopped running back on defense, began turning the ball over (16 in his last three games) and barking at teammates more, and lost his stroke from the line (24-for-44 [55 percent] in his last three games).

He’s not the only player to struggle. Jalyn Patterson has regressed from the player who helped lead LSU to the NCAA Tournament last year upon being inserted into the starting lineup. Gray hasn’t played serious minutes in weeks. Behind Simmons and Victor, there’s no depth, as Elbert Robinson hasn’t really turned out to be this year’s Tim Quarterman, after all. Speaking of Quarterman, he has shot 24.4 percent from the field and 17.1 percent from 3 in LSU’s six-game slide. The understanding is he won’t be back for his senior season. Did he ever really come back for his junior season?

All the while, LSU’s faced questions on its team chemistry. Neither players nor coaches admit to any chemistry issues – nor should they – but the fact that the questions can be asked point to signs of trouble. It’s one thing to like a guy off the court. It’s another to mesh with him on it.

And then there was the final, perhaps fatal blow: a re-aggrivation of Hornsby’s earlier injury could cost him the rest of the season, and as he’s watched from the sidelines for the last two games, he’s been unhappy with what he’s seen.

“You see us get down, you see people’s body language,” Hornsby said. “Where’s your pride in the uniform that you have on? You’re representing LSU. It’s not in me to be like that. So when I see something like that, it definitely hurts me.”

Hornsby sees the floodwaters rising. His college career might be done, and after watching his teammates give up a combined 101 points in the second halves of the Tennessee and Arkansas games, he’s willing to call them out. It’s a right he’s earned, his coach says.

“At the level he plays, how hard he plays, he probably looks and sees guys not playing at that level,” says Jones “Knowing how he plays and dives after loose balls and the effort he gives, anything short of that may be concerning to him.”

For fans of the program, that’s probably the most disappointing aspect of LSU’s late-season descent. For all the external blows dealt to them, most of the breaches were self-inflicted. It’d be one thing if they were fighting until the bitter end. Instead, the perception, true or not, is that they’ve gone down with a whimper, showing more resistance online than on the court itself. Rather than suffering defeats down in a defensive stance, they’re taking defeats standing up, throwing punches only toward critics or referees in media sessions or on social media.

“When you’re doing good, everyone loves you when you’re doing good,” said Quarterman. “When you’re struggling, you’re going to get people’s opinions – bad opinions or good opinions. That don’t really bother me. If we turn it around right now, the same people that was talking bad are gonna be talking good. It’s never too late to turn it around.”

Quarterman’s right. The ship hasn’t sailed. There’s still a ton of talent on this team that, coupled with tenacity, could get them back on track.

But it’s sinking, fast, and the only lifesaver in sight is an SEC Tournament title, which, strangely enough, this team is more than capable of winning. Anything short of that, however, will see LSU’s season sunk the ocean floor, a once potentially great voyage rendered forgotten wreckage.

 

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