LSU started SEC play 2-0, which made you think twice about their 8-7 non-conference record for about as long as it took Kentucky to build a double digit lead in their third SEC game. The Cats had them down 10 in four minutes and four seconds, led by 29 at halftime, and won by 38. For their next trick, the Tigers hosted Ole Miss...and lost by 27.
So yeah, LSU beat Arkansas, who beat the Vols. But this is a team that's lost its last two games by a combined score of 160-95. There's no such thing as a bad win in college basketball, and I'll take the next four by a point apiece if we have to get them that way. But if the Vols want to entertain the notion that they're just as good as Kentucky (or Ole Miss, our Saturday opponent), we should drop a hammer of similar size on the Tigers. Growth for the inconsistent Vols isn't a tight win tonight...it's a blowout.
If we pull that off, it'll be especially impressive given the way LSU plays. Remember that last year, with the Tigers just as bad (if not a little worse) and the Vols an Elite Eight team in the making, Tennessee struggled mightily in both meetings with LSU: 59-54 in Baton Rouge in the regular season (check the comments on that one for a glimpse at how frustrated we were with last year's team at that point...which, again, went on to be the best in school history), and 59-49 in the first round of the SEC Tournament. That LSU team was 2-14 in league play.
This LSU team has new names - gone are Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer, in are guards Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer, and forward Malcolm White, two freshmen and an Ole Miss transfer - but the style is the same: slow it down, sit back in zone, and be patient.
And we at Tennessee don't handle patience very well.
In last year's meetings, LSU went 2-3 and invited the Vols to beat them from the arc. We enjoyed the opportunity, just not the results: 9 of 41 (21.9%) from three in the two games combined. This year's Vols shoot 32.2% from the arc, but we take fewer of them (17 per game). That number doesn't need to jump up into the mid-20s tonight - the same thing that was true last year is true now: the Vols are good enough to beat LSU with nothing from the arc, and getting excited about the three ball just delays the process. Both Kentucky (10 of 20) and Ole Miss (10 of 17) found great success doing it against LSU without jacking one up every time down the floor - shooting that well helps you win by 38 and 27, but I'll be even more thrilled if we display good ball movement and get points in the paint...and win by, you know, like 20.
You get a feel for LSU's tempo and their struggles when you look at their numbers in comparison to the rest of the SEC (and remember, this is a league that includes the Auburn Tigers and their RPI of 309):
- Points Per Game: 64.9 (11th)
- Assist/Turnover Ratio: 0.83 (11th)
- Possessions Per Game: 66.7 (9th)
- Points Per Possession: 0.97 (11th)
LSU limits their opportunities, then takes little advantage of them. It's even worse in conference play, where they're averaging 53.25 points per game. Since the season opener, every team that's scored more than 65 points on them has won. That includes North Texas, who beat them by 20 in Baton Rouge; Rice, who's 1-4 in Conference USA; and 11-8 Virginia.
We want to the Vols to show maturity, and handle an inferior opponent with few problems. Fittingly, it'll take maturity to be patient against LSU's defense, stop turning the ball over, and force turnovers on the other end. Teams that struggle offensively can really be done in by one or two runs, which Pearl's teams of the past have been great at, but this year not so much. LSU is not built to play from behind or answer runs - if the Vols can force turnovers and create easy opportunities in transition, making LSU play faster than they want to play, this should be no problem. We'll learn a lot more that way than if we happen to be hot from the arc.
But either way will work. This can be a feel-good game, where Tennessee gets rolling and builds confidence headed to Oxford and into next week, where we can continue to build momentum that will certainly help us in Rupp Arena on February 8. Or this can be yet another trip to the dentist with these guys, where we settle for threes early and late in the shot clock and allow them to hang around far too long.
If we want to shake the label of inconsistency and get back to being a consistent work in progress, that can start by playing smart and playing well against these guys, which will allow us to have some fun along the way in a game that shouldn't be close. Bruce Pearl has challenged everyone with the notion that the Vols haven't improved at all since the Pittsburgh game. We've got an easier opportunity to show improvement over the next four games than we will the rest of the way. Let's move forward in a big way tonight.