There's no way to sugarcoat it, even though it's early in the season: This is all but a must-win game for LSU if it wants to go dancing.
The Tigers torpedoed much of the good work they did throughout non-conference play, suffering an abhorrent home loss to Rhode Island on Saturday. The bad news? They'll take an RPI beating and likely have a lot of work to do in SEC play to make up for it. The good news? Tennessee is the kind of solid SEC win that can erase much of that URI misery and propel LSU full throttle into the all-important conference slate.
It certainly won't be easy with the Vols, like last year, seemingly hitting their stride as they reach league play. Tennesee pasted a good Virginia squad, 87-52, a week ago and easily routed Tusculum (a true #SECBasketballFever RPI boost if I've ever heard one) to finish up OOC play at 9-4.
With LSU at 9-3, it's an early pecking order game in the SEC. Last year, the Vols grabbed the upper hand en route to a NIT bid with an 82-72 win in Knoxville. Jordan McRae went 6-for-6 behind the 3-point line in that game and scored a career high 34 points.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, McRae is back and leads a potent inside-out combo along with power forward Jarnell Stokes. Stokes and Derek Reese crash the boards hard to keep Tennessee among the top 50 nationally in rebounding. That could spell bad news for an LSU team was outrebounded 46-32 against the Rams.
That's part of a disturbing trend. The Tigers have been bested on the glass in four of their last six games despite remaining among the dozen best rebounding teams in the country. For the most part, LSU's rebounding issues seem to be effort-based. Johnny Jones has even admitted as much. With this being the first SEC game, at home, against a good team and on national television, effort shouldn't be a problem.
Expect a close game that could come down to perimeter play. Tennessee was 10-of-15 beyond the arc last year, and LSU struggled to find much scoring rhythm while going 4-for-14 from deep versus Rhode Island. Who can land the big blows outside to complement what should be a dogfight in the paint? That could tell the story tonight in the PMAC.
The game is at 6pm Central on ESPN and the WatchESPN service.