By Trey Mongrue
It turns out all of that fingernail chomping was for nothing.
After a quick and disappointing exit from the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, Johnny Jones and his LSU basketball team found themselves awaiting their postseason fate with bated breath back in Baton Rouge on Sunday. Watching the selection show in the practice facility, a raucous roar broke out when it was announced that the Tigers would be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons.
“Needless to say, the team and everyone involved with the program are really excited about the news that came this afternoon about being selected in the field of 68 and being a part of March Madness,” Jones said after the announcement was made. “Our guys are extremely excited and look forward to the challenges that we have in front of us.”
LSU’s next destination is now Pittsburgh, PA where it will meet North Carolina State on Thursday with tip-off scheduled at approximately 8:20 p.m. Placed as the ninth-seed in the East Region, the Tigers could meet the one-seed Villanova in the next round – that is if they get past a tough Wolfpack team.
“I was hopeful that Sunday at 5 p.m. that something good would happen and we would hear our name called.”
– LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones
– LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones
“I am elated,” continued Jones, “That these young men’s hard work from the beginning of the season through strength and conditioning and the time and energy they’ve put in during the grueling season.”
Slotting in as the ninth-seed showed just how much the tournament’s selection committee thought of the Tigers’ 12-5 record against teams in the RPI top 100, including road wins over Arkansas and West Virginia – two teams are seeded high in the tournament. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any sweating going on.
As early as the morning before the official field of 68 teams was announced and still with a handful of conference championships left to be played, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi listed LSU as one of his last four teams to make the tournament.
Coming off the heels of a 73-70 overtime loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament last Friday, the seed of doubt was planted as the Tigers had to wait out the next two days to see what the final verdict would be.
“In terms of anxiousness, I’ve always tried to remain positive,” explained Jones, who is set to make his third appearance in the tournament as a head coach, having previously made two trips at North Texas.
“I was hopeful that Sunday at 5 p.m. that something good would happen and we would hear our name called. We were very fortunate and blessed that it was.”
What now lies ahead for Jones is a very familiar face in North Carolina State and head coach Mark Gottfried.
Jones served as an assistant coach under Gottfried at Alabama during the 2000-01 season and has been in close contact since. In fact, the two spoke on the phone the morning before the tournament field was announced.
Little did either coach know that they would be paired to face each other just a few hours later.
“We spoke [on Sunday] and had chance to visit a little bit,” Jones recalled of his conversation with Gottfried. “When I saw their name come up, I was excited for him and where they were. Then, our name popped up underneath. It was kind of ironic.
“We’ve been friends for a long, long time in the profession. It certainly will be an interesting game for the both of us.”
But beyond Jones’ extensive relationship with Gottfried, the Wolfpack has another layer of familiarity with its senior guard, and former LSU player, Ralston Turner.
The only player to start in every game for North Carolina State this season, Turner has shown to be a more than capable scorer. He is second on the team, averaging 13.2 points per game to go along with a team-high 83-percent clip from the free throw line.
But while Turner’s name may be a recognizable one for LSU fans, it’s still relatively foreign to the current LSU players and coaching staff.
As a freshman with the Tigers during the 2010-11 season, Turner was a lone glimmer, averaging a team-best 12.3 points and earning All-SEC Freshman Team honors, in an otherwise trying season for a team that was rebuilding. But following head coach Trent Johnson’s departure for TCU after the 2011-12 season, Turner, a North Carolina native, had already decided to transfer to a school closer to home well before Johnny Jones took over at LSU.
“I don’t really care who [our opponent] is,” Turner told the local media in Raleigh upon learning that North Carolina State would be taking on his former team.
“Everyone that I played with there is not there anymore, so I don’t know any of those guys.”
Beyond Turner, LSU’s starting guard combo of Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman will also have their hands full trying to defend the Wolfpack’s other guards, junior Trevor Lacey and sophomore point guard Anthony ‘Cat’ Barber.
Lacey leads North Carolina State with a 15.8 points per game average, which includes shooting a blistering 39.8-percent from beyond the three point line. As the primary ball-handler, Barber averages 12.1 points, shooting a team-leading 45-perecent from the field in addition to his 4.4 assists.
With Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey both averaging more than nine rebounds per game, LSU should have an advantage on the glass but will still have to be wary of the Wolfpack’s frontcourt rotation of BeeJay Anya and Abdul-Malik Abu.
But now that LSU is firmly in the tournament, Jones believes the sky is the limit for his team and they are ready to make some March Madness noise.
“I think people know the challenges and how tough that we’ve been,” he said. “I think we’ve been an exciting team to watch all year long. Night-in and night-out, I think our guys have done a tremendous job of bouncing back and getting ready for their next outing.”