LSU faces late-season litmus test in battle for first in SEC versus Tennessee

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Will Wade and LSU
Head coach Will Wade and LSU will look to defend their home floor against the SEC’s first-place team, the Tennesee Volunteers, (Photo: Jonathan Mailhes).

If LSU wants to truly be taken seriously as a contender for an extended run in March, they need to beat SEC-leading Tennessee on Saturday.

The Tigers’ margin for error was so much wider just 10 days ago. Will Wade’s team had just gone into Rupp Arena and beaten Kentucky. It seemed like the type of statement win that the second-year Tigers head coach needed to re-establish LSU as a presence on the national scene.

The thriller against the Wildcats was the third of what would be four consecutive victories that would propel LSU to its highest national ranking (13) in a decade, past the 20 win mark for the first time since 2015 and into a tie for first place in the Southeastern Conference with the Volunteers, who had been upset by that same Kentucky squad on Feb. 16.

The Tigers were riding high.

That is, until they lost in overtime to the Florida Gators, 15-11 overall and a mere 7-6 in the SEC. AT HOME.

Suddenly, the momentum building towards Saturday’s clash came to an abrupt halt.

LSU, which had won its last four games by an average of 3.75 points, had been living on the edge and against the Gators they slipped off of it.

If the Tigers want to win a conference championship and get a top three seed in the NCAA tournament, losing this game is not an option.

Wade couldn’t find anything to be pleased about in defeat. It’s a quality that has endeared him to the Purple & Gold faithful.

“The game was played at Florida’s pace and their way,” he said. “We could never get ourselves going and Florida was able to impose their will and their style of play on us…I thought they really hurt us on the offensive glass in the second half. That was something that came back to bite us. We didn’t finish well enough at the rim; we didn’t shoot free-throws like we normally shoot free throws. We weren’t very crisp tonight. We weren’t as crisp as we needed to be with our execution.”

That’s a laundry list of shortcomings, and those are the types of things LSU (21-5, 11-2) can’t afford against first-place Tennessee (24-2, 12-1), a team that spent four weeks ranked number one in the country.

The Volunteers of Rick Barnes are experienced and deep. Their starting backcourt features juniors Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden plus senior Admiral Schofield. The trio combines for 40.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game.

And then there’s last season’s SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams, who has been even better this season while averaging 19.1 points and 7.6 rebounds on 58 percent shooting.

Tennessee’s potent offense is scoring more than 82 points per game in conference play, shooting an incredible 51 percent from the floor. They are deadly from anywhere on the court, converting 57 percent inside the arc and knocking down nearly seven threes each night.

Defensively, the Vols are just as good, limiting their opponents to 67 points per game and ranking in the top 15 nationally in field goal defense.(.394). Tennesse blocks shots and the create turnovers, leading to fast break opportunities for any one of their great finishers.

The Vols probably present the most complete challenge that the Tigers will face this year. An LSU upset at the PMAC is going to require that the highly-touted talent that has flocked to Baton Rouge under Wade rises to the occasion.

First and foremost, Tremont Waters has to find his shooting stroke. The Tigers’ leading scorer has shot better than 30 percent from the floor in only three of his last eight games. Over his last four contests he’s made 19 of 56 field goal attempts (9 of 29 three pointers).

Success in college basketball starts with great guard play, and even though Waters is just a sophomore, he is the unquestioned leader of this team. He must take care of the ball, control the tempo and make shots. If he fails at any of the three, LSU’s task becames all the more difficult.

It would be a great time for Naz Reid to regain the form he had against Mississippi State, when the bullish forward aggressive and efficient, scoring 29 points on 17 field goal attempts. He went to the line eight times and grabbed four offensive rebounds.

Reid has remained effective on the glass in the four games since, averaging 9.5 boards per contest. However, his scoring has fallen off. Over those same four games, he’s scoring 13.5 points per game and his shooting has dipped below 50 percent for the season.

With all of the requisite talent required for stardom, Reid has to play with a sense of urgency and with focus. He cannot get into foul trouble, a place he has put himself with regularity. It would also be great if he put some of the men in orange in foul trouble as well.

Even if LSU can score, a solid defensive game as a team is required. Opponents have torched the Tigers in conference play, where they rank next to last in field goal percentage allowed and points allowed per game.

Kavell Bigby-Williams and his ability to protect the paint will both be tested repeatedly by Tennessee. Keeping him on the floor will definitely be a point of emphasis. The Tigers are lacking in height, so any extended periods with either Reid or Bigby-Williams on the bench will be a problem against teams like Tennessee with studs in the frontcourt like Williams.

Whatever challenges we see for LSU this Saturday, be certain Wade sees them as well. Also be certain that there isn’t a coach in America working harder at making sure that his team will be prepared. Teams like the Vols await in March, and the Tigers need to take advantage of facing them in a huge game on their home floor.

LSU basketball fans have to be prepared as well, to create as exciting and hostile environment inside the PMAC as they bring to Tiger Stadium in the fall. This is the type of big home game for which LSU basketball fans have been waiting for years.

The wait ends Saturday at 11 a.m.

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David Grubb

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David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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