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Gamethread: LSU @ Tennessee, 11 A.M., ESPNU

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LSU opens conference play in Knoxville

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU men’s basketball team (8-4) begins its SEC Championship defense Saturday morning on Rocky Top as the Tigers open conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers (8-4) in Knoxville.

Last season, LSU and Tennessee played in an instant classic in Baton Rouge where the Tigers knocked off the Vols 82-80 in overtime. LSU and Tennessee finished at the top of the SEC and both made the Sweet 16. But both teams lost key pieces from their Sweet 16 squads and the Tigers and Volunteers have taken a slight step back this season.

LSU comes into Saturday’s game after getting a much needed win over Liberty to snap a two game losing streak; Tennessee has dropped three out of its last four, highlighted by getting demolished by Wisconsin 68-48 last Saturday.

The Vols have struggled scoring lately, failing to crack 50 in two of its past four games; and it will be even harder for Tennessee to score moving forward now that senior guard Lamonte Turner’s season is over due to a shoulder procedure. Turner was Tennessee’s second leading scorer and had good shooting numbers from both the free throw line and from three.

Now Tennessee will have to find scoring and someone to facilitate the offense elsewhere. The Volunteers still have senior guard Jordan Bowden but, while he is the leading scorer with 12.9 points per game, his shooting has cratered in recent weeks; in Tennessee’s last seven games, Bowden has shot 30 percent or worse in five of them. Another pressing issue for Tennessee moving forward is that Bowden is a two-guard, not a point guard. Tennessee is hoping the ball handling burden can be shouldered by one of their two newcomers.

Josiah-Jordan James was a five-star, top-20 recruit coming out of high school. But James has had a rough go of things lately, especially in the Wisconsin game where he shot 1-6. Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said James needs to change his mindset when on the court.

“He has to be more aggressive,” Barnes said. “He’s going to have to play harder on offense. He’s going to have to continue to work hard on his defense, to stay in front of the ball. Offensively he has to totally change his mindset in terms of playing to the rim more. When he’s open, he has to take shots.”

If James isn’t up to the task, perhaps Tennessee will lean on fellow freshman guard Santiago Vescovi, a four-star guard from Uruguay who spent the first half of the year at the NBA Global Academy in Australia. Vescovi started practicing with his Tennessee teammates last week and on Friday afternoon he received clearance from the NCAA allowing him to play immediately.

Last season, LSU was a perfect 9-0 in conference road games. The Tigers will have to carry those lessons learned with them to Knoxville, a place that’s been difficult for LSU in recent years. Coming into Saturday, the Tigers have lost four of its last five in Thompson-Boling Arena.

The game will tip off at 11 A.M. on ESPNU. Beth Mowins and Sean Farnham will have the call while Chirs Blair and John Brady provide radio coverage for 98.1 fm.