Last Modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:16 PM
BATON ROUGE — Saturday may have been a milestone day for the Johnny Jones era of LSU basketball.
Maybe even a turning point.
His Tigers are getting there, evidenced by an easier-than-the-final-score 80-68 victory over Mississippi State.
And that’s part of it.
The Tigers are .500 in the Southeastern Conference — strike up the band! Drop the confetti! A modest goal at 6-6 perhaps, but noteworthy nonetheless.
OK, maybe it’s not time to cut down any nets.
But it’s a start.
After all, the bare cupboard of a team that Jones inherited when he returned to his alma mater this season didn’t fool anybody when it went 9-2 in preconference, and seemed to reaffirm all fears when it started the SEC season 0-4.
Getting to .500 must have looked like a pipe dream at that time and to bounce back with a 6-2 record since then shows some real progress.
That’s on the floor.
The players are evidently buying into Jones’ no-nonsense approach with the program and really embracing the fun, up-tempo style of play on the court.
Good for them.
It looked like a well-oiled basketball machine Saturday, with LSU running a weaving, quicksilver offense through their best player, Johnny O’Bryant III, but letting most everybody else fill up on points from outside while shooting 54.5 percent from the field.
O’Bryant III had 30 points when the Tigers embarrassed South Carolina coach Frank Martin into a YouTube moment Thursday after LSU routed the Gamecocks.
This time The III was setting up threes, getting his 11 points but more effectively dishing it out yonder where the Tigers were an unconscious 12 of 22 from beyond the 3-point arc.
The Tigers had 24 assists, five players in double figures, with Charles Carmouche getting 21 even though he didn’t start.
Maybe it would have been tougher if Mississippi State had bothered to guard any of them.
The Bulldogs are a really bad team, and they have plenty of company in this year’s Southeastern Conference.
Suffice it to say, getting to .500 isn’t Jones’ ultimate vision for the program in which he played and then coached under Dale Brown in the glory days.
But he’s probably got them overachieving right now.
It’s going to get better. Jones has a highly touted recruiting class on the way for next year. Right now he doesn’t really have the depth to be fast-breaking from tip to buzzer, as his style.
But it’s fun to watch.
And that’s good.
But it wasn’t the most impressive thing about LSU basketball on Saturday.
The jaw-dropper was that the basketball Tigers outdrew the baseball Tigers who played earlier in the day.
OK, it was dang-near freezing for the outdoor sport, and the indoor sport had some red-hot shooting from the home team to warm the insides of Tiger fans.
Even Jones admitted the crowd of 9,720 was buoyed by some double-dippers who wandered in after the baseball game, possibly seeking hot chocolate. The baseball game drew 7,104, although admittedly 11,209 tickets were sold.
But Jones gets it.
It’s not impossible to win basketball games at LSU. The Tigers have a fair amount of tradition — a 1953 Final Four team featuring NBA Hall of Famer Bob Pettit was honored at halftime.
But Jones’ biggest challenge in his first year might be making LSU basketball relevant again.
You have to win, ultimately, but even that’s not always enough.
No Tiger fan ever warmed up to John Brady after he took over for Brown. The next coach, Trent Johnson, was a decent enough sort, but he almost seemed to consider it beneath him to worry about anything beyond drawing up masterful X’s and O’s, many of them designed to put the casual hoops fan into deep slumber.
Jones evidently learned well from Brown.
The crowds are coming back.
Saturday’s gathering was the second largest of the season, topped only by the 9,964 that showed up for the Florida game, probably then more out of curiosity to see what a good basketball team looked like.
This time there seems to be a gradual awakening of a fan base.
Jones hasn’t been shy, dashing around the state to any group that will listen to him promote his team.
Wins are fine — and ultimately you have to win or it doesn’t matter how much you promote — but Jones does seem to be connecting with a long-neglected fan base.
If Saturday wasn’t exactly the old Deaf Dome for long stretches, it was only because the Tigers took most of the suspense out the game with a late first-half run that settled on a 41-28 halftime lead.
But they seemed to be having fun.
There’s even a reincarnation of the old Front Row Lunatics incubating in the student section, and Jones made a point to come over and high-five with them after the victory.
“I hope they had a good time,” Jones said afterward. “That was one of the best crowds we’ve had.
“Makes me wonder what it will be like when we start winning big.”
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org