Rabalais: Vanderbilt win marks a rare level of achievement for LSU men’s basketball

LSU’s basketball season has been a mishmash of …

• Will they win?

• Will they play well?

• Will they even get to play because of COVID-19?

It’s hard to see the forest for all those trees, coming as they do at a blurry clip. But when a milestone is reached, an achievement, as the Tigers did Tuesday night, it’s worth taking the time to step back and take stock.

LSU beat Vanderbilt 83-68 to run its record to 15-8 overall and, more importantly, 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference. Yes, the last-place Commodores were playing without their top two injured scorers: Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu. But LSU basketball is rarely in position to turn its nose up at wins. Especially this season.

Forget for now the circumstances and the opponent. The win was a watershed moment for LSU basketball in that the Tigers clinched:

• A third straight 10-win SEC season for the first time since 1991-92.

• A third straight double bye as a top four seed into the upcoming SEC tournament, the only team to do that.

• A chance to climb as high as the No. 3 seed, depending what happens in LSU’s game Saturday at Missouri and what Florida ends up doing in its final two games against Mizzou and Tennessee.

The LSU basketball team left nothing to chance Tuesday night.

Has this LSU team been underachieving, choppy and listless in their performances at times this season? Yes, yes and yes. Still, the overall campaign has been a successful one, stamping the team with the imprimatur of programs that achieve at a level of high quality. It’s the kind of consistency LSU hasn’t seen since the latter stages of the Dale Brown era.

“That is not easy to do,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “Certainly not around here.”

LSU having three straight top-four SEC finishes on three straight 10-win SEC seasons is like Kentucky making three straight bowls in football. These are building blocks, foundations for bigger things in LSU’s basketball future should Wade — who is still haunted by the Flying Dutchman of an NCAA investigation that may or may not ever make port — continue to run the program.

“We’ve got people here dying for us to finish in the top four” in the SEC standings, Wade said. “They would have laughed me off the podium if I said we would do that three of (his first) four years.

“Do I want to be better than we are now? Hell, yeah. But at the end of the day, it’s not all bad.”

Aside from 15 straight years in the NCAA tournament and NIT from 1979-93 under Brown, peppered with two Final Four appearances, four SEC regular-season titles and LSU’s lone SEC tournament title, the Tigers’ basketball fortunes have looked like a relief map of the Himalayas. LSU is either winning the league or in last place, where the Tigers were in Johnny Jones’ last season in 2016-17 with a 2-16 SEC record.

Yes, the lows have been dismal, but the highs have been incredible. “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the greatest scorer in NCAA history. Shaquille O’Neal and his collection of shattered backboards. Hall of Famer Bob Pettit. And the second most SEC titles in conference history (11) and the fourth-most Final Four appearances among SEC teams (four).

Wade’s first three teams went NIT, NCAA and would have made the NCAA last year (they were 21-10 when the season stopped). They’ll be in the NCAA field again this year, probably as a middling seed that will make advancing past the first weekend of the tournament long odds.

Should LSU aspire for more? As Wade said, hell, yeah. But it’s another brick in the wall for the Tigers, a program for whom a collapsing wall never seems too far away.

“We’re not going to win the SEC every year,” Wade said. “But we should be in the conversation and win every three, four, five years. It’s embarrassing to me that we haven’t won the (SEC) tournament since 1980. I want to get it going so we can win that thing. To do that, you’ve got to keep putting yourself fin position for top four seeds. We want to put another (SEC tournament) banner up.”

And, ultimately, return to the Final Four. Is Wade the man for that job? NCAA troubles aside, the answer is yes, despite some of the doubts cast on his coaching this season as he tried to work with a team that would vex John Wooden himself.

It is, to say the least, an interesting time for LSU basketball. The past has been good and certainly promising. The future is, as is typical for LSU hoops, uncertain.

But the chance for bigger achievements is at least there. For this school in this sport, that’s saying a great deal.

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