Tennessee is not a good matchup for LSU. The Vols have now won six straight in the series, the last three with many of the same bodies on the floor. LSU is a good offensive rebounding team, but the Vols are a great offensive rebounding team. And though the Tigers did force Tennessee into 16 turnovers, seven more than our season average, most of them came with the press extended after the Vols had built a 17 point lead.
Meanwhile Tennessee did more of what they've been doing since the December 18 loss to NC State, which was once demoralizing but may prove transformative in the long run. Our best players were at their best: Jordan McRae scored 19 points on just seven shots, missing once, and Jarnell Stokes had a 15/15 on his 20th birthday. When you add in Antonio Barton's 4 of 4 three point shooting spree in the first half, you get a big early lead the Vols never gave up.
A Johnny O'Bryant jumper made it 17-16 Vols with eight minutes to play in the first half. Tennessee then closed on a 21-8 run which included three of Barton's threes for a 38-24 halftime advantage. LSU got no closer than a dozen in the second half and the Vols stayed strong for all 40 minutes, grabbing their biggest lead of the night in the final minutes at 20 before winning by 18.
As was the case against Virginia last week, we would've celebrated any victory. LSU had been a couple plays from an undefeated start before Rhode Island stunned them over the weekend. What's more, Cuonzo's previous squads had waited until mid-February to win a true road game. But the Vols put a stop to that in game one of SEC play, not just winning but dominating, again.
The rising question for those who haven't been paying full attention - "Why has Tennessee been so much better all of a sudden?" - is in part easy to answer with hot shooting. Tennessee didn't miss a beat tonight at 8 of 15 from the arc (after a school record 10 of 15 against LSU last year) and 12 of 15 from the line. You can also believe the players' meeting narrative, getting stronger with every win.
But even before tonight the season-long numbers suggested the Vols had been a better offensive team than the record showed. Tennessee's curious case of first in the SEC in points per possession but last in the SEC in possessions per game has seemingly resolved itself with a faster tempo in the last two weeks, and once again it paid off tonight.
Meanwhile Cuonzo's overall foundation of defense hasn't been lost; LSU shot 36.7% on their home floor tonight despite coming in as one of the league's best shooting teams. It got buried earlier, and rightfully so, under the angst of losses that look more and more like free throw shooting issues every day. But Tennessee, quietly but a little bit louder every night, has the makings of a really good team on both ends of the floor.
This win alone and the three that preceded it won't be enough to convince the whole fanbase or the nation at large. The next two won't either, with Texas A&M and Auburn coming to Knoxville on Saturday and next Wednesday in games the Vols will be expected to win. But waiting down the line is Rupp Arena, January 18. Tennessee is building something now that could be as good as we hoped it would all along. Something that competes for the SEC title and dances for days. The hard evidence and the belief of the people probably can't be won again until Kentucky stands across the way. But tonight was another important step, and a big step on the road Cuonzo's teams hadn't taken nearly this soon before. Big games are coming. But for now, Tennessee just needs to keep running.