Surprising LSU hopes to make late push into NCAA contention

LSU coach Trent Johnson is notoriously tight-lipped and guarded with the media, so it was hardly surprising to hear him downplay the Tigers' recent surge in a teleconference with reporters earlier this week.

"We need to concentrate on the next game and the next possession," Johnson said. "I don't pay much attention to the standings and I know to a man the kids don't either because we know how fragile we can be if we're not right."

Johnson's one-game-at-a-time mantra works for his players, but forgive LSU fans if they dare to think a little bigger. The Tigers, seemingly on their way to a third straight humdrum sub .500 league finish as recently as three weeks ago, suddenly have won four straight and five out of six, sparking some chatter that an NCAA tournament berth isn't totally out of the question.

For LSU to go from the fringes of at-large contention today to the field of 68 in two weeks, the Tigers will have to continue their recent surge.

They have bad losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama out of conference, but they've also beaten Marquette, Mississippi State and shorthanded Alabama this season. What's more, they could finish alone in fourth place in the SEC and earn a first-round conference tournament bye if they defeat Ole Miss, Tennessee and Auburn to complete the regular season at 20-10 overall and 10-6 in the league.

That outcome probably would still require the Tigers to notch a victory or two in the SEC tournament, but LSU would surely take its chances considering how bleak things looked at the end of January. The Tigers were 2-5 in the SEC after Kentucky throttled them 74-50 on Jan. 28 and what little conversation there was about basketball in Baton Rouge had largely shifted to who Johnson's replacement should be.

What changed during the ensuing week of practice was that Johnson challenged the Tigers not to give up on the season and to work harder to get better.

7-foot junior Justin Hamilton has improved dramatically the past month, flashing the ability to score with his back to the basket or step out and hit an occasional jump shot. Wings Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer have taken smarter shots and contributed more on offense. And freshman point guard Anthony Hickey and freshman forward Johnny O'Bryant have begun to mature enough to further tap into their upside.

The memory of last year's Alabama team going 12-4 in the SEC and still missing the NCAA tournament is a reminder that it's far more likely LSU's surge falls short of a return to March Madness. Still, for a program that has floundered since Johnson's first season in Baton Rouge, the strong finishing kick sparked mostly by underclassmen has served notice that better days are ahead.

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