Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 9:58 AM
I’m thumbing through the Southeastern Conference’s weekly basketball release.
Page after endless page it seems to scream one thing about Johnny Jones’ first team at LSU: mediocre.
Average in its own fair-to-middling conference.
The 14-team standings? The Tigers are in a tie for eighth with Georgia at that comfortable break-even point, 7-7.
But with three teams just a smidgen better at 8-6 — including tonight’s home opponent Arkansas — the Tigers are a game out of fifth place.
Doesn’t sound like much, of course.
Go to the team statistics and just about anywhere you look it’s the same thing: middle of the pack.
The Tigers don’t shoot free throws worth a lick — 13th, ahead of only Vanderbilt, odd, because most seasons the Commodores miss only about two free throws a month.
The Tigers are into petty thievery, leading the SEC in steals — Anthony Hickey leads the nation — which makes it hard to believe they’re down in the middle in turnover margin. They’re also third in assists, as perhaps a three-guard offense should be.
Anywhere else you look, it’s in the middle, almost decent.
Not terrible, but not outstanding.
And that’s great. Mediocre is good. Average is outstanding.
You have to take everything in context.
The Tigers were supposed to be terrible. Turns out, they’re not.
That’s a good thing.
This isn’t football, with which many LSU fans are excruciatingly concerned that mere 10-win seasons might become the norm and sink the Tigers into oblivion, stuck in Chick-fil-A purgatory. The latest 10-3 record has the whole offensive staff doing some serious soul searching.
It isn’t baseball, where Omaha will forever be the minimum standard.
It should be like that for the flagship’s marquee teams.
Basketball is different.
Basketball is … well, many were beginning to wonder if the Tigers still played an indoor sport.
Worse, even fewer seemed to care. It wasn’t that LSU had no tradition. But it was as if the fan base was saying, yawn, wake me up when it comes back — until then, no biggie, we’ll be at the ballpark or studying football five-star lists.
Jones inherited a bad basketball team from Trent Jones, a West Coast guy who understood the game well enough, if not the LSU culture, but seemed lost in the maze of SEC (i.e., AAU) recruiting.
Hence, there wasn’t a lot of bona fide SEC talent on hand when Jones came aboard.
The most interesting story was Andrew Del Piero, who came to LSU to play in the basketball pep band. Then somebody noticed that the tuba player over there was 7-foot-3 and might be the kind feel-good story that the student section could cheer on to get a crowd-pleasing basket late in mop-up time.
Jones is getting valuable minutes from him, even occasional starts, along with 28 blocked shots, perhaps some of them into the pep band from whence he came.
But tuba players do not normally start for really good basketball teams.
Before the season, I thought it would be a minor miracle if Jones managed a .500 record in SEC play.
After a 1-5 start in the league, it seemed downright preposterous.
In that context, mediocre is great. Average is fabulous. Johnny Jones might, truly, be a candidate for SEC coach of the year.
Being competitive should bring on the confetti.
In fact, considering that LSU is 6-2 in its last eight games, regardless of the record you could make the case to upgrade the current Tigers to fairly decent, maybe even above average.
Not great. But it’s a start — a better start, thus far, than anybody had a right to expect.
Surely Jones would love to have some of those early conference games back.
LSU opened the SEC season losing to Auburn, which has won only two games since. The Tigers lost at home to South Carolina, which also has won only two games since (and which LSU beat by 18 in the road rematch).
But Jones held the team together during the early disappointments, even dished out some bench time for some minor offenses to get everybody on the same page.
A team has emerged. Not a bad one, at that.
They won’t dazzle you with talent, but they play unselfish and they play together and they play their tails off for 40 minutes in an entertaining, uptempo style that defies their short bench. Or 55 minutes, if need be, as was the case in rallying from 10 points down with less than three minutes left against Alabama Saturday, eventually winning the first triple-overtime game in Maravich Assembly Center history. LSU’s 6-2 record since the 1-5 start includes wins over two teams still currently ahead of them in the standings.
People are starting to notice. Gradually some curiosity seekers have started showing up in the Assembly Center.
LSU’s isn’t a great, but they weren’t supposed to be even this good this soon.
Next year could be different. Jones has already put together a top-flight recruiting class, including a McDonald’s All-American in Jarell Mitchell.
With the influx of talent and the encouraging start to the Jones Era this season, LSU might even be faced with a rarity next season — high expectations coming in.
And that, if you think about it, is half the battle.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org