If LSU has any interest in making the NCAA tournament, you’d never know from its performance Saturday.
The Tigers lost on the road 81-65 against a Tennessee team that was without leading scorer Kevin Punter and isn’t even all that good when it has him.
What was especially disconcerting was the way LSU lost. The Tigers were lethargic on defense, careless with the basketball and out-hustled on the glass. Tennessee extended their lead to as many as 18 points in the second half even though they’re undersized in the paint and don’t start a single player who averages more than 11.8 points per game.
LSU’s loss leaves the Tigers in need of a strong finish to avoid missing the NCAA tournament. They’re 16-11 overall, 9-5 in the SEC and 81st in the RPI. They have a pair of marquee wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M, but they also have a litany of questionable losses against Wake Forest, Charleston, Houston, NC State, Marquette and now the Vols.
While LSU was without starters Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor for several of those early losses, the Tigers had no such excuses Saturday. They had their full complement of players, though prized freshman Ben Simmons didn’t start because of disciplinary reasons.
Freshman wing Antonio Blakeney had 20 points. Simmons had 21 points, 9 rebounds and 8 turnovers, but none of their teammates eclipsed seven points.
LSU has four games left and three of them aren’t easy — road games at Kentucky and Arkansas and a home game against Florida. If the Tigers don’t win at least three of those four, Simmons’ lone season in college could easily end in the NIT.
SATURDAY’S BUBBLE WINNERS:
Cincinnati (20-8, 10-5): For the sixth straight season, Cincinnati has won at least 20 games. The Bearcats reached that threshold Saturday by completing a season sweep of fellow bubble team UConn with an important 65-60 victory. Even with its latest win, Cincinnati projects as a classic last-four-in, first-four-out bubble team. The Bearcats’ most meaningful victories besides the sweep of the Huskies came against bubble teams VCU, George Washington and Tulsa. Their only truly bad loss came against Memphis a few weeks ago. Can Cincinnati get in with that blah a resume? It’s possible, but the Bearcats would be wise to finish strong against East Carolina, Houston and SMU.
St. Bonaventure (18-7, 10-4): Kendall Pollard-less Dayton is handing out marquee wins to Atlantic 10 bubble teams like candy this week. First it was St. Joseph’s Then on Saturday it was St. Bonaventure’s turn. Jaylen Adams scored 31 points and hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 36 seconds left to lead St. Bonaventure to a 79-72 win on at Dayton. It was a critical victory for the Bonnies after they lost at hapless La Salle on Wednesday night. This win may not put St. Bonaventure in the field of 68, but it does have the Bonnies back within striking distance. They probably need to win out during the regular season to feel good about their chances, an attainable goal considering a home game against St. Joseph’s is their toughest remaining game.
Pittsburgh (19-7, 8-6): Six losses in nine games had Pittsburgh’s NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy entering the week, but the Panthers helped themselves with a pair of critical victories. They survived at home against Wake Forest in triple overtime on Tuesday and they outplayed fellow bubble team Syracuse down the stretch on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. Pittsburgh’s 66-52 victory gives the Panthers a season sweep of the Orange. Remarkably, those are Pittsburgh’s two best victories of the season aside from a win at Notre Dame in January. Pittsburgh has four games left — home games against Duke and Louisville and road games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Three wins would ensure the Panthers an NCAA bid. Two may also be good enough.
Other bubble winners: Vanderbilt (defeated Georgia)
SATURDAY’S BUBBLE LOSERS:
Alabama (16-10, 7-7): Had Alabama managed to take care of business at home against Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas, the Tide could have felt pretty good about their NCAA tournament chances entering the SEC tournament. Instead the Tide suffered a damaging home loss on Saturday, falling 67-61 loss to a Mississippi State team that didn’t even have Malik Newman available. Where that leaves Alabama is squarely on the bubble entering the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama is 5-5 against the RPI top 50 and boasts quality wins over Notre Dame, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina. The Tide now have two terrible losses in SEC play, one against Auburn and the other Saturday’s against Mississippi State.
Butler (18-9, 7-8): For a few fleeting moments, Butler was leading No. 1 Villanova in Philadelphia and appeared to have a chance at the monumental win it needed to move closer to securing an NCAA bid. Then the Wildcats responded with a 16-6 surge, regaining control of the game and leaving the Bulldogs with their backs against the wall. On the one hand, Butler has a marquee win against Purdue, no terrible losses and victories over fellow bubble teams Cincinnati, Seton Hall, Creighton and Temple. On the other hand, Butler already has nine losses and is just 2-7 against the RPI top 50. Butler’s three remaining games are against Georgetown, Seton Hall and Marquee. Three wins would put Butler in strong position entering the Big East tournament. Two or more is probably a must.
Florida State (16-11, 6-9): Before this week, the one thing Florida State had going for it was a lack of losses against non-NCAA tournament contenders. That’s out the window now because the Seminoles dropped back-to-back games to ACC bottom feeders Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Where does that leave Florida State? In big trouble. Besides a critical victory over ACC contender Virginia last month, the Seminoles’ best wins are against bubble teams Florida, VCU and Clemson. They have a few chances to add to that list with games remaining against Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse. At least two wins against that group are probably a must if Florida State is going to make up for this week’s losses.
Clemson (16-11, 9-6): If Clemson was already in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, the Tigers did nothing to help themselves Saturday. They lost 77-74 at a NC State team that has struggled all season. Clemson had a great two-week stretch in January in which it defeated Duke, Louisville, Miami, Syracuse and Florida State, but the Tigers have been ordinary both before and afterward. They have bad losses to Minnesota, UMass, Virginia Tech and now the Wolfpack. Clemson has three games left in the regular season — road games at Georgia Tech and Boston College sandwiched around a home game against Virginia. If the Tigers don’t win all three, they may have work left to do in the ACC tournament.
Other bubble losers: Florida (lost at South Carolina), Syracuse (lost to Pittsburgh), UConn (lost to Cincinnati)