Welcome to a bigger game than either team should have any right to be playing. You know our story: picked to finish 11th in the SEC in Cuonzo Martin's first year, with the loss of Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris plus two top tier recruits in the wake of Bruce Pearl's dismissal, and an abysmal month of December that had everybody looking to next year...but all of a sudden we're 8-6 in the league, swept Florida, and have a chance to finish second and get back on the bubble.
LSU started 3-3 in Trent Johnson's fourth year at the helm, with losses to Coastal Carolina, Northwestern, and South Alabama. They won four straight after that, but it was the fifth win - 67-59 over then-undefeated Marquette - that made people pay attention. A near miss against Virginia left them 10-4 as SEC play unfolded. Their opening act was a 26 point beatdown of Ole Miss.
Then the schedule got the best of them: six losses in eight games, five of them on the road at Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt, plus a home loss to Kentucky. The Tigers were 13-10 (3-6), and left for dead. But like Tennessee, a kinder schedule left a crack in the door: four straight wins over Alabama, Mississippi State, at South Carolina, and Georgia. All of a sudden they were back on the bubble...and then Ole Miss repaid the season opening loss with a 24 point assault in Oxford.
Now LSU is 17-11 (7-7), with an RPI of 68 as I type Tuesday night. You can compare the RPIs of Tennessee and LSU at this site from CBS Sports. LSU goes to Auburn on Saturday to close, which won't help them much, so even with a win tonight and a win on Saturday they'll still probably need to do something impressive in New Orleans. But a loss tonight will almost certainly force them to win the SEC Tournament.
And you can say the same thing for us.
It's been a long time since I've seen a team with a lower FT Rate than us. But we'll take it.
Like the Vols, LSU does it with defense. Since a season opening win over Nicholls State 96-74, every team that's scored 70+ points on LSU has won. The Tigers average 65.7 points per game; Tennessee is at 68.8. These are two of the most efficient defensive teams in the country: LSU is 28th and Tennessee 39th in defensive efficiency ratings.
The free throws are a red flag, even though the Tigers shoot 70% at the line. LSU is 327th nationally in FT Rate, getting to the line just 17 times per game. As is always a key for Tennessee without Kenny Hall, the Vols can't afford to get in foul trouble in the paint and shouldn't be the team that puts LSU on the line more than they're used to being there.
Here's why that might be an issue: this team is huge. 7'0" Justin Hamilton is the leading scorer at 13.2 points per game, though Ole Miss held him to just a deuce on Saturday. Freshman Johnny O'Bryant goes 6'9" and averages 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, and has been an offensive rebounding machine. It's a huge assignment for Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. But since every picture of Hamilton I can find includes the word "fouls" in the caption, this could be an opportunity for the Vols to turn the tables and put LSU's best players on the bench. It seems very likely that the post duo with the better game will lead their team to victory.
On the perimeter, it's a weird matchup with 5'9" Andre Stringer and 5'11" Anthony Hickey. Then throw in familiar faces Storm Warren and Ralston Turner, and this is a team with a ton of balance: after Hamilton, five players average between 8.3 and 10.4 points per game.
This team doesn't shoot the three well at 31.4% - Turner leads the way here at 35.4%. But they defend the three exceptionally well, allowing just 31.5% from the arc this season. And like the Vols, they are a much better basketball team at home: since the early loss to South Alabama, the only teams to win in Baton Rouge are Virginia and Kentucky. Assume what you'd like about the 24 point blowout to Ole Miss, but at home it's been a very different story.
For us, the script doesn't change: play great defense, take care of the basketball, be responsible with your three point shooting (4 of 20 at Bama but 7 of 14 at South Carolina), and let Jeronne Maymon lead the way. This will also be a big game for Trae Golden on both ends of the floor, staying in front of his man without fouling on defense and running the offense effectively. 70 points should win it, but I don't think either of us will get there. But as always, if the Vols defend well they'll give themselves a chance to be there in the end, and simply need the offense to score just enough to get the job done.
Vegas favors LSU by a point, KenPom likes the Tigers by a deuce in most exciting SEC game of the night. Should be a good one.
9:00 PM - CSS/ESPN3. Keep hope alive.