Tennessee at LSU Preview

USA TODAY Sports

The Vols and Tigers open SEC play tonight at 7:00 PM ET.

It's January 7, but this game should feel like March. Both teams enter SEC play outside the top tier, with Florida and Kentucky getting all the national attention and Missouri one point away from being undefeated. And both could use what would be another quality win to add to their resume after disappointing losses late in non-conference play; LSU in particular is coming off a stunning 74-70 defeat to Rhode Island in Baton Rouge.

Tennessee has won five in a row over the Tigers, including a pair of memorable late season games the last two years. In 2012 Tennessee erased an 11 point halftime deficit in Baton Rouge by holding LSU to two made baskets in the final eight minutes in an eventual overtime win in the next-to-last game of the regular season as Cuonzo continued to make a name for himself. And last year Tennessee followed a 30 point win over Kentucky with a school record 10 of 15 from the three point line and a career high 34 from Jordan McRae in an 82-72 win in Knoxville, the fourth win of the eventual 8-1 close to the season.

These are largely the same teams on the floor again tonight. Johnny O'Bryant III goes 6'9" 256, so we should be in for another hoss fight on the block after he put 24 and 8 on us last season. This year he's joined by freshman Jordan Mickey who goes 6'8" 220, so both Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon should be occupied. The Vols will also have to again deal with LSU's unique small, quick backcourt of Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey, neither of which tops six feet.

LSU STRENGTHS

  • eFG% Defense. LSU is sixth in the nation and best in the SEC in this category, which translates to 18th nationally in points per possession allowed. A big part of that:
  • Steals & Blocked Shots. LSU is second in the league in steals per game at 9.2, and third in the league in blocks per game at 6.3. Anthony Hickey is tied for 14th nationally averaging 2.5 steals per game, Jordan Mickey is 9th nationally with 3.5 blocks per game.
  • Offensive Rebounding. Fun fact: LSU is 35th nationally (among 351 teams) in offensive rebounding percentage, getting it back on 37.6% of its misses. But that's only good for fifth best in the SEC; as you can see we're even better at 42.4%, sixth best in the country and trailing only Kentucky in the SEC.
  • Pace of Play. LSU will get up and go, currently playing the second fastest pace in the SEC. The way the Vols have been playing lately I'm sure we won't mind seeing a team that wants to run.
LSU WEAKNESSES
  • Turnovers. LSU leads the league with 15.3 per contest, turning the ball over on a staggering 20.3% of their possessions. Tennessee, by the way, is the least turnover prone team in the conference, currently averaging just 9.2 per game and giving it away on just 14.2% of our possessions.
  • Getting to the free throw line. The Tigers are last in the SEC in free throw attempts, averaging just over 20 per game. By contrast we take 26.3 per game, 4th best in the SEC.
  • Defensive Rebounding. You want to get out and run like they do, you can't send everyone to the glass. LSU is 10th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. It'll be interesting to see if/how they change this strategy when dealing with Stokes and Maymon.
Tennessee comes in knowing it needs to do a better job on O'Bryant, and LSU comes in knowing it needs to do a better job on McRae. The Vols are more equipped to do so this time thanks to Maymon, and Tennessee hasn't been relying heavily on McRae in the last three games. The Vols will need to continue to take care of the basketball and knock down shots against a team that has been excellent at taking it away and making life difficult defensively.

It's a big test of maturity and a huge opportunity for the Vols, who are yet to win a true road game. And if we don't get this one, we'll have to beat Kentucky, Florida, or Missouri to leave this season with a quality road win. It's still too early to put a ton of stock in RPI, but road wins are your best friend and the Vols could definitely use this one. It would go a long way in the Cuonzo Martin narrative and allow a three game winning streak to become four, claiming its second big prize. But it will take a complete effort on both ends of the floor, with Stokes and Maymon handling O'Bryant and Mickey on the block and the entire team taking good care of the ball. I think if we don't get into turnover-fest we should be good enough and balanced enough to get this one done on the road.

It's the SEC Basketball opener, 7:00 PM ET on ESPN. If Tennessee wants to play for the SEC Championship, this is an important first step.

Go Vols.
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