This has the potential for a slobberknocker. Both LSU and A&M have been handed defeats by now SEC-lead-sharing South Carolina in recent days, and now the Aggies look to drag the Tigers down in the standings to their level (a tie for second, or likely third, given that 7-4 Florida should take care of business vs. Alabama today.) Statically, the loss to the gamecocks was worse for A&M than LSU, as it dropped the Aggies 8 spots (7 to 15) vs. just 4 for the Tigers (54 to 59) in KenPoms ratings. Not encouraging for either team, especially the Aggies, who lost at home.
For the Tigers, this game is an absolute must win. I wrote earlier in the week that LSU couldn't lose two of their last four marquee match-ups (USC, A&M, Florida, Kentucky) if they're to guarantee themselves a tourney spot, and the loss to the Gamecocks, even on the road, was a poor first step in handling these last tests of the season. Luckily they get this game at home, where the Tigers have been very good this year, and will need to be today as A&M is coming off three bad losses (for them) and are in desperate need of a "get right" win. PMAC should be rocking. The Tigers are desperate too, but haven't shown the ability to truly perform in big spots so far this season. The Oklahoma game was, in my opinion, not a moral victory but a really bad loss, as the Tigers completely relinquished control and momentum (at home) in the closing 10 minutes of the game. Benefit of the doubt, when it comes to performance under pressure, goes to the Aggies here.
Keys for the Tigers: As always, defense. When Simmons and Craig control the boards, when the perimeter players are engaged and defending the lane with gumption, this team can be very, very good. Defense equals turnovers and bad misses that provide transition opportunity, and that's what the Tigers up-tempo offense depends on to be truly lethal, as opposed to just a little violent (and I'm looking for Javier Bardem in "No Country" level destruction, which is what their offensive ceiling should be based off the talent.) While there is plenty to nitpick on the offensive side of the ball (as the half-court offense continues to oscillate back and forth from "watching paint dry" to "spoon my eyeballs out of my skull"), the underperformance and inconsistent effort on defense is so glaring that you can't start anywhere but there. If you can't win the intensity, effort, and execution battle with consistency, you can't win, period. Defense is everything. It's like when a high-profile NFL team has a horrible o-line. You can criticize the QB, the skill players, the play calling... but without five bears in trenches, none of it matters. Winning basketball (more so at the pro-level, but also in college, and especially the SEC) comes down to the defensive end of the floor (anyone with more than a surface-level understanding of the game will tell you this is true.) This team needs to learn that, and quickly.
For the Aggies, they'll look to their studs, seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House to get them out of the funk they've been in their past several games, including a heart breaking loss to Bama. That ended with a 93% FT shooter (Anthony Collins) on the line, down two, shooting two with 2 seconds left. He missed both, which, for a 93% shooter, had about half a percentage (0.5%) chance of occurring, statistically speaking. So the motivation will be there, but the Aggies, especially of late, have demonstrated a similar inability to execute in key stretches late in games, just like the Tigers.
Regardless, this is a big match-up between two of the true contenders for the SEC crown. With a down year in Lexington, any one of the Aggies, The Tigers, The Gators, or the Gamecocks could end up grabbing the AQ for the tournament that historically belongs to Kentucky. While Calipari and company. will still be the odds on favorite, there is great parity in the SEC this year, and it's up to anyone of those teams to shake off their mediocre resumes (thus far) and take a step towards a run. LSU has the requisite talent (especially if Simmons can continue to push Blakeney to step his game, which he certainly has of recently.) They also likely have the worst coaching (not the worst coaching staff, but the worst HC), and that will be a major handicap against teams like USC, Kentucky, and the Aggies.
This should be a battle. This is a must-win for LSU if they want to guarantee themselves a spot in the tournament. Lose this one, and god forbid another to a doormat team, and it will almost certainly take the SEC AQ to pull this team out of the NIT. I think LSU pulls out a close one to keep treading NCAA tourney water. If this team is going to miss the tournament, it's going to be in the most painful, drawn-out way possible. We're not there yet.