BATON ROUGE - Various "unnamed sources" have been saying - or making a safe prediction - that LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones will be fired shortly after his team's season ends, which could be on Wednesday night in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The Tigers (10-20, 2-16 SEC), who are the No. 13 seed in a 14-team league, play No. 12 seed Mississippi State (15-15, 6-12 SEC) at 6 p.m. Wednesday night to open the tournament in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, on the SEC Network. Mississippi State defeated LSU just last Saturday by 88-76 to end the regular season and beat LSU, 95-78 on Jan. 7 to start a record 15-game losing streak for the Tigers.
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who hired Jones after the 2011-12 season, has been silent publicly about Jones' future, but several university contacts have been saying for weeks that Jones will not be retained for the 2017-18 season. The Tigers' 15-game losing skid broke the record of 14 that was set in the 1965-66 season and tied in the 1966-67 season before the namesake of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center played on the LSU varsity. And 12 of those losses were by double digits.
This season came on the heels of Jones not reaching the NCAA Tournament last year despite having the consensus No. 1 recruit in the world in freshman forward Ben Simmons, who was the first player selected in the NBA Draft last summer, along with highly recruited guard Antonio Blakeney, who was named to the second unit of the coaches' All-SEC team as a sophomore on Tuesday, and several other talented veterans such as Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman and Craig Victor. Despite all that talent, LSU lost 71-38 in the SEC Tournament last year to Texas A&M to finish the season 19-14 overall and 11-7 in the SEC. Then Jones became the first basketball coach in LSU history to decline a bid to play in a national postseason tournament when he turned down the National Invitation Tournament.
Before that, Jones was doing well. He inherited an 18-15 and 7-9 team from previous coach Trent Johnson, who had gone 11-20 and 2-14 and 11-21 and 3-13 in his previous two seasons. Jones quickly returned the Tigers to respectability with a 19-12 and 9-9 mark in his first season in 2012-13 while recruiting very well. In his second season, he accepted an NIT bid and finished the season 20-14 and 9-9. In the 2014-15 season, LSU went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 behind forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who went in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the 2015 NBA Draft. The Tigers finished 22-11 with an 11-7 SEC mark after losing in the final seconds to North Carolina State, 66-65, in the first round.
"I shouldn't even have to think along those lines," Jones said Monday when asked at a press conference if he would be back for the 2017-18 season. "I have a basketball team to get ready and a staff trying to do that. That's where our focus and concentration should be. I don't want to get into that."
He will likely not have to answer any more questions about his LSU basketball program soon. But should LSU beat Mississippi State, it will advance to a 2:30 p.m. game Thursday against No. 5 seed Alabama (17-13, 10-8), which defeated LSU twice this season by scores of 90-72 and 81-66.
"Wednesday is a new day," Jones said. "You have to survive and advance."
But Jones would likely have to really, really advance to have even a chance to survive. If he could get five wins in five days in Nashville, LSU would be SEC Tournament champions and would receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. That may get him another season.
"It's another great challenge," Jones said. "We're hopeful that we're the team that will continue to play on, on Thursday. I think when you're in a situation like this, and there's no tomorrow with a setback, teams have a little bit more edge about them."
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