Thursday at noon, LSU will start off the second day of the SEC Tournament against Georgia. If LSU wants to have any chance at making the NCAA Tournament, this is a must-win.
Additionally, due to upsets in the conference tournaments of smaller leagues like the MAAC, CAA, and Big South, there will be fewer at-large bids in the NIT than previously expected since all regular season conference champs earn a spot in the NIT if they fail to win their conference tournaments and/or secure an at-large spot in the NCAAs. As a result, this game takes on more importance in the Tigers' hunt for a spot in the NIT as well.
Although the Bulldogs beat LSU 67-58 earlier in the season, LSU should be favored this time around.
When the two teams faced off in Athens on January 19, the Tigers were at the low point of their season. After dropping very winnable games against Auburn and South Carolina, LSU had one of their worst offensive nights of the year. They shot only 36 percent from the field and turned the ball over a whopping 21 times. On the defensive end, LSU allowed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to calmly run the Bulldogs' offense, and he finished the game with 22 points and 5 assists.
As you saw from my All-SEC picks earlier in the week, I think very highly of Caldwell-Pope and have no doubt that he could put together a similar all-around performance on Thursday. However, I like LSU's chances to win regardless of how well Caldwell-Pope plays.
Georgia is the epitome of a one-man team. Caldwell-Pope leads the team in points, rebounds, and steals per game (18, 7, and 2, respectively) and shoots a respectable 43% from the field and hits 37% of his threes. Those numbers look even better when you look at his extremely high usage rate. Since no one else on the team averages double figures in points, he has the heavy burden of being the number one option on most of the team's halfcourt sets.
However, on Thursday, LSU will have Charles Carmouche ready to defend Caldwell-Pope. In the first match-up Carmouche sat out due to tendonitis in his knee. Without a guard of comparable height to guard him for much of the game, the 6'5" Caldwell-Pope was able to score over the significantly shorter Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey. Carmouche has come back since then and at times, has even been the best player on a resurgent LSU squad.
Nemanja Djurisic, a 6'8" forward originally from Montenegro, is Georgia's second best player. However, he hasn't shown a significant improvement from his promising freshman season. On the other hand, LSU's big man, Johnny O'Bryant, has had a huge leap in performance in just the conference slate.
Georgia plays at a very slow pace. They average less than 61 points a game, good for only 309th of the 347 teams in Division 1. In sharp contrast, LSU's offense averages almost a dozen points more and is ranked 83rd nationally. Therefore, it will be imperative for the Tigers pressure defense to cause turnovers from Caldwell-Pope and ballhandlers Charles Mann and Vincent Williams.
Both teams have 9-9 conference records, but since the loss to the Bulldogs, LSU has gone 9-5 in conference play despite facing much tougher opponents than in the first four games. Georgia hasn't faded down the stretch by any means, going 8-6, including some impressive wins at home against Tennessee and Kentucky.
However, after factoring in the neutral setting in Nashville, the presence of a healthy Charles Carmouche, and the steady improvement of multiple other LSU players in the past two months, look for the Tigers to advance and face an extremely talented Florida team on Friday.
Thursday's game tips off at noon central time and will be available on ESPN3 and the SEC Network (Louisiana affiliates: Alexandria - KLAX-DTs; Baton Rouge - WBXH; Lafayette - KLAF; Monroe - KARD; New Orleans - WUPL; Shreveport - KMSS)