NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Say this about LSU: that must have been one impressive 8-3 start for coach Johnny Jones in the Tigers' SEC Tournament semifinal game against Texas A&M.
After the worst performance by one of the most disappointing teams in the country, the LSU coach said this: "I thought the guys came out ready to play."
Yes, LSU held a five-point at one point. One hitch, though: the Aggies led 68-30 the rest of the way to end any hope for the Tigers to go to the NCAA Tournament in a 71-38 loss.
In the last gasp for the possible No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft to play in the NCAA Tournament, LSU scored the fewest points of any team in the top six conferences this season.
Even Boston College, a team that went 0-18 in the ACC this year, scored at least 40 in every game this year. Even Rutgers, the worst major conference team ever, scored at least 49 points in every game this season.
This latest indignity for LSU means that if Ben Simmons is going to win 20 games as a collegiate player, he'll have to do it in the NIT. That fact would seem to stretch the imagination of anyone who didn't watch LSU play this year, much less on Saturday afternoon.
Simmons is averaging 19.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He was a double-double machine all year. It wouldn't be fair to lay this disappointing season on Simmons' shoulders, but it's inescapable that LSU won 22 games and was a No. 9 seed last year and will be in the NIT this year with Simmons and Antonio Blakeney and a talented roster with veterans.
Simmons could be the first All-American to miss the NCAA Tournament since Davidson's Stephen Curry in 2009 -- although Curry played in a traditional one-bid league and lost his final conference tournament. Simmons also could be the first No. 1 overall draft pick to miss the Tourney since Pacific's Michael Olowokandi in 1998. The difference is that Curry and Olowokandi played in the NCAA Tournament in prior years.
"I want to play with this team as long as I can," Simmons said. "I love my teammates and my coach and stuff, and I'm having a great time playing with these guys. These are like my brothers to me. I don't want to leave."
But he also found his way to the bench. Twice in the SEC tournament, Jones benched Simmons in the first half with foul trouble. He played five minutes in the first half against Tennessee on Friday and 14 in the first half against Texas A&M.
When he played, Simmons could be brilliant as a playmaker, but his team can't make shots. LSU missed 14 straight shots at one point and 16 in a row in another.
Then again, LSU has looked like it was ready to move on from this season for the last month. The fact that there were still games to play -- important games in the case of the SEC Tournament was a mere inconvenience.
The scene in the postgame locker room Saturday hardly felt like a place where the season, for all intents and purposes, ended.
"We couldn't throw a rock into the ocean," forward Craig Victor said.
Players were asked if they thought the team gave a good effort, if they were in the right offense, if the offense was adequate enough to score.
Most college players aren't going to sell out their coach or teammates, but the "shots didn't fall" line was a tough one to buy.
"Tonight wasn't our night," Blakeney said. "It sucks this was the night that we couldn't make any shots."
Given a chance to bury his head coach, guard Blakeney passed.
"Any time you get open threes, open layups, you're in the right stuff," Blakeney said.
By the time Simmons was assessed a technical foul for spiking the ball with 3:05 remaining, Texas A&M sent out curly haired walk-on Kyle Dobbins to take the free throws. He made 1-of-2 to give Texas A&M a 40-point lead.
The problem with Saturday's final wasn't that it was so embarrassing for LSU. The problem was that this wasn't surprising. LSU finished its game ranked 87th in KenPom.com, behind teams like Mississippi State, Evansville and Northwestern.
LSU has been setting the stage for this debacle all year. Here's how:
• LSU finished the first month of the season with three consecutive losses to Marquette, NC State and Charleston, each loss more lopsided than the last. With a weak non-conference schedule, these losses to three non-Tournament teams immediately set LSU back for an at-large bit. The Tigers added a 105-98 overtime loss at Houston on Dec. 13. The missing piece, it looked like, could be Craig Victor, an Arizona transfer who would improve LSU's rebounding.
• Once Victor became eligible in December, LSU lost 77-71 to another lower-tier Power 5 school, Wake Forest. Altogether, that's five losses to teams ranked outside of the top 85 of the RPI by Dec. 29. LSU's at-large résumé was on life support before the calendar turned to 2016.
• Signs of life! LSU opened SEC play 2-0 with wins at Vanderbilt and at home over Kentucky.
• After starting 6-2 in the SEC, LSU faced AP then-No. 1 Oklahoma in the SEC-Big 12 challenge with a chance to reboot its season. LSU gave up a 14-point lead in the second half to lose 77-75.
• Following the loss to Oklahoma, LSU beat Auburn and Mississippi State in back-to-back games to be 8-2 and in sole possession of first place in the SEC on Feb. 6.
• LSU beats Texas A&M 76-71 on Feb. 13 for the Tigers' second RPI top-20 win of the season. If LSU can avoid losing bad games, the Tigers will be NCAA Tournament bound.
• LSU loses three straight bad games to Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. The Tigers now need to win the SEC Tournament to play in the NCAA Tourney. The Tennessee loss on Feb. 20 will be the final game of the season for senior guard Keith Hornsby, LSU's best outside shooter. Hornsby will have season-ending surgery for a sports hernia on March 10.
"We haven't had a full roster all year," Victor said. "We've only had a full roster in spurts."
The roster, however, always had Simmons and fellow five-star Blakeney, plus Tim Quarterman.
This team wasn't always ready to play.
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