COLUMN: Tigers in line for Dance

With another win on Saturday, Johnny Jones and the Tigers are inching closer to the program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009. TSD publisher Ben Love writes that despite experiencing turbulence along the way, LSU is right where it needs to be.

This is the column you write where if you get it wrong every LSU fan wants to punch you in the face.

But I'll say it anyway, despite repeated evidence this season of the Tigers' inability to sustain success: LSU basketball has started to turn the corner in 2015 and should be locked and loaded for the NCAA Tournament, capable of winning at least a game in the Big Dance.

That's right, the same team that dropped consecutive games to Mississippi State and Auburn a month ago, churning conversation of NIT over NCAAs again, is now a no-doubt tournament team in my estimation.

And I'm not alone.

"I think we should be in," freshman Jalyn Patterson said plainly after LSU's 73-63 home win over Ole Miss on Saturday, "but we're not done yet."

LSU has won three in a row
The Tigers (21-8, 10-6) do indeed have a pair of games left next week, versus Tennessee then at Arkansas, before heading to Nashville for the SEC Tournament the following week.

But, even with work left to do, LSU is undeniably in better shape than it's been in each of the last three seasons, when the Bayou Bengals flirted with the NCAA Tournament but never quite made the grade.

This time around, in year three under Johnny Jones, the Tigers are already sitting on 21 wins and, even more important, 10 conference victories, a mark the program hasn't reached since the 13-3 run to win the regular season league title in 2008-09, not coincidentally the last time the program participated in March Madness.

"We've got two conference games left. Now wins on the back side are so significant," admitted Jones. "It was a big game for us today with a team that was a game ahead of us. Now I think we have the tie-breaker over them.

"Sitting on 10 wins in conference play, 21 wins overall, is a huge positive for us ... It means we've improved as a team from last year."

Jones is spot-on when describing the jockeying for position that's going on in the SEC underneath undefeated, top-ranked Kentucky, second-place Arkansas and, assuming it takes care of Auburn Saturday night, third-place Texas A&M.

LSU is now level with Georgia and Ole Miss at 10-6 in conference play. A combined 3-0 against those two league foes, the Tigers own the tie-breaker over both, meaning the purple-and-gold ballers control their own destiny in the race for fourth place - meaningful in that it would almost guarantee a berth in the tourney and because it would give LSU a bye in the SEC Tournament.

Gone are fears from recent years that the SEC will only receive three bids. Many prognosticators have the conference down south getting six teams in, but even five representatives, feeling like a lock, in the final 68 teams would represent a huge stride forward for the league.

And it would virtually assure Jones' crew a seat at the table.

It's my observation at this point that LSU would have to lose its next three games to miss out on all the fun. That hasn't happened all season to the Tigers, and there's no reason to suspect it will, especially drawing Tennessee, a team LSU manhandled in Knoxville, at home on Wednesday.

What's more likely is that the Tigers push to improve their seed and lot in life over the next two weeks before Selection Sunday arrives.

And with the way LSU's been playing lately - winning four of five, Saturday's historic triple-double from Tim Quarterman, Jarell Martin with three-straight double-doubles, Keith Hornsby in double figures for 12 straight games - here's betting the team that couldn't figure it out for much of the SEC campaign gives a splitting headache to whoever ends up across the bracket from them.

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