Happy Valentine's Day weekend, where you want to give your heart to Donnie Tyndall but your momma keeps telling you to guard it. His Vols made a little Memorial Magic of their own late Wednesday night, ending a four-of-five slide and instilling confidence that this team can play winning basketball in the final minutes. At 14-9 (6-5), Tennessee still has a reasonable chance to win enough games to make the NIT. To do that, I think they'll need to be at least 17-13 (9-9) going to the SEC Tournament. The Vols have won four road games while losing three at home in which they were favored coming in, so it's especially unsafe to assume this year, but Tennessee has four home games left and only one of them is against Kentucky. After winning in Nashville, this means the Vols could put themselves in position to make the NIT if they just win the non-UK home games, against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and tomorrow against LSU.
Tennessee has already done a good job separating itself from the league's bottom tier, getting clearer every day with Missouri at 1-10 and Auburn, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt at 3-8. That means Tennessee is three games north of playing on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament, a fate they should be able to avoid with just seven left to play. The next step up the SEC Tournament ladder is to avoid the eight and nine seeds, which will come with a date against Kentucky on Friday and the probable sudden demise of any dream scenarios in Nashville. Right now the Vols and LSU are tied for sixth at 6-5, with Alabama and Florida right behind at 5-6.
As for the Vols themselves, Josh Richardson got his groove back with 27 points in Nashville, but just as important were a bounce-back performance from Derek Reese (12 points, 8 rebounds) and the continued emergence of Robert Hubbs (9 points and 7 rebounds in 34 minutes). Devon Baulkman hit a three and Detrick Mostella had the big steal in overtime, even though he didn't score. Everybody's confidence that doesn't belong to a traditional post player has to be on the rise for this team.
The bad news: we might need those traditional post players against LSU.
Sophomores Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin lead the charge for LSU, and they do it from inside the arc. The 6'8" Mickey averages a double-double at 17 points and 10.8 rebounds. The 6'10" Martin gets 16.2 points and 9 rebounds per game. They're the primary scoring punch from a team that really only gets points from six players, with guards Tim Quarterman & Keith Hornsby and The Range Jr. also scoring in double figures.
Super obvious point of emphasis: LSU is the fastest team in the SEC at 72.2 possessions per 40 minutes. Tennessee is the slowest team in the SEC at 62.1. The Tigers create turnovers but have also been eager to give it right back. Who will dictate the pace, and more importantly, which team can best take advantage of the pace? Tennessee's press might be able to take advantage of an LSU team in a hurry. But likewise, the Vols have to be smarter and cleaner if they find themselves in an up-tempo game on the other end. This has worked to our advantage against Arkansas twice, for what it's worth.
Despite the extra opportunities LSU is just 10th in the league in free throw attempts and 10th in the league in three point attempts. It's Mickey and Martin doing the work in this offense. This is good news for Tennessee, I think, despite the size disadvantage: the Vols still lead the SEC and are third nationally in percentage of points allowed from two point shots. The Tigers should be less apt to take advantage of Tennessee from the three point line as a natural part of their offense, though they have been prone to poor shot selection. That's what Tennessee wants to do if they can't create a turnover: get teams out of their element and make them take shots they normally wouldn't.
The Tigers have size and the high rebounding numbers that go with it, but those numbers are inflated by their pace; LSU's rebounding percentages are actually fairly pedestrian. Tennessee continues to be surprisingly good at getting offensive rebounds, but predictably struggles with giving them up as well. Boxing Mickey and Martin out from the zone is of critical importance, and our guys are probably not as used to being in position to rebound as many two point shots as we're going to see from this team. Armani Moore and Derek Reese have been pleasant surprises here, but this will be a different kind of challenge.
Winning on the road has been no problem for LSU: West Virginia, Ole Miss, Florida, and Vanderbilt are all notches in their belt. But they have struggled recently, losing at Mississippi State and to Bruce Pearl in Baton Rouge before beating Alabama and almost getting Kentucky. We're hoping for a little hangover, but either way I feel better about the X's and O's of this one. Perhaps LSU will just flat out out-talent us. But it hasn't happened yet in the SEC. I expect Tennessee to give themselves a chance to win again.
Seven games left. Let's see if the Vols can keep the magic going.