When the LSU men’s basketball began its season back in November, the goal set by the players was to make the NCAA Tournament and end a five-year drought in the process. But after a turbulent regular season and Southeastern Conference Tournament that ended for the Tigers with last Friday with a 85-67 loss to Kentucky, head coach Johnny Jones knew his team would have to wait at least another year for that return trip to the “Big Dance.”
However, not all hope was lost for LSU as it found out on Sunday night that the Tigers’ 2013-14 season would continue for at least one more game after they were extended an invite to participate in the National Invitational Tournament – college basketball’s secondary postseason tournament.
“We are really excited about the news that we got earlier tonight about the opportunity to continue playing this year in postseason play in the NIT,” said Jones, who has coached LSU to a 19-13 record in his second season with the program.
“Our guys are really looking forward to an opportunity to continue playing together, improving as a basketball team and making some positive strides for our basketball program.”
It was a particularly nervy Sunday night for Jones, who was not sure if an invite would come.
“It’s tough because you’re sitting there on edge,” recalled Jones of watching the selection show on Sunday night with his coaching staff. “You’re waiting on an opportunity to hear some news and not knowing. Just like any of the tournaments that you’re sitting out there – that you’re welcoming that opportunity.”
This marks the second time in three years that LSU finds itself in the NIT. The Tigers were a part of the tournament back in 2012 where they lost in the first round to Oregon in what would be Trent Johnson’s final game as LSU’s coach.
Seeded fifth in their bracket this year, Jones and the Tigers will make the trip out to California to take on the fourth-seed, San Francisco. Tip-off is set for 9 pm on Wednesday and will be televised on ESPNU with the winner taking on either SMU or UC-Irvine.
After an overtime loss to BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament likely dashed their hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid, the Dons had to settle for one of the higher seeds in the NIT.
While he does not know too much about his opponent, Jones is familiar with USF coach Rex Walters. The two faced each other a few times in the Sun Belt Conference when Jones was at North Texas and Walters at Florida Atlantic.
“He played at Kansas, and he kind of has that background,” Jones said of Walters. “He was there with Roy Williams so he’s from that school of basketball. So their system and everything that they run, that’s probably about as much or as close without knowing their team by knowing a little bit about their system.”
The Dons are led by senior forward Cole Dickerson, who averages a team-high 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. He will likely be the focus of LSU’s starting frontcourt duo of Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey.
Having started for LSU in every game this season, O’Bryant III and Mickey are the Tigers two leading scorers with O’Bryant III topping the list with a 15.5 point-per-game average.
There will surely be a battle behind the three-point arc between LSU senior guard Andre Stringer and San Francisco sophomore Avry Holmes. Stringer leads the Tigers 67 made three-pointers on 39 percent shooting. Earlier in the season, Stringer became the 39th Tiger in program history to record 1,000 career points.
The Dons will counter with Holmes, who shot a red-hot 43 percent from three to lead the WCC.
While it’s a tough opponent, what has Jones most excited about the matchup is that it’s a vacation from the grind of the SEC.
“The big thing is it’s a new opponent,” he said. “It’s not one of those conference teams that we’re familiar with so we’re going to have to do a lot of work by prepping and preparing for each other, but we are in the same situation that they are.
“That’s what the postseason play is about.”