The Tigers wrapped up non-conference play on a sour note Saturday night with a 74-70 home setback to Rhode Island, further exacerbating the need for LSU, which slid back to 68th in the nation in RPI, to score a noteworthy win.
The Volunteers, up to No. 66 in the latest RPI rankings after a three-game winning streak that includes a victory over Virginia, provide that type of opportunity. Moreover, with a monstrous frontline and a trio of experienced and long wings, a suddenly hot UT squad will test LSU in the matchups department from the opening tap to the final horn.
In other words Cuonzo Martin's bunch represents the type of outfit the Tigers are likely to see should they find their way into the third season – the NCAA Tournament.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
G Anthony Hickey (5-11, 182, Jr.) – 9.3 ppg, 3.5 apg 2.5 spg
G Andre Stringer (5-10, 190, Sr.) – 12.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg
F Jarell Martin (6-9, 241, Fr.) – 8.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 43.1% FGs
F Jordan Mickey (6-8, 220, Fr.) – 13.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.6 bpg
F Johnny O'Bryant (6-9, 256, Jr.) – 14.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 52.9% FGs
G Antonio Barton (6-2, 178, Sr.) – 8.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.8 apg
G Jordan McRae (6-6, 185, Sr.) – 18.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg
G Josh Richardson (6-6, 190, Jr.) – 8.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 45.8% 3s
F Jeronne Maymon (6-8, 260, Sr.) – 11.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.8 O-rpg
F Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 260, Jr.) – 13.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 3.8 O-rpg
GETTING TO KNOW TENNESSEE
The Vols trek to the bayou on a legitimate roll, having won their last three contests by an average of 32.3 points, including an 87-52 beatdown of Virginia. However, all three games did come at home.
Away from Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee is 0-2 on the 2013-14 season in true road games, dropping a 67-63 contest at Xavier in the team's season opener as well as a 70-61 decision at No. 12 Wichita State on Dec. 14.
The two post players, Maymon and Stokes, rightfully draw a lot of attention, but the Volunteers' best player and playmaker through non-conference play has been McRae. The senior from Midway, Ga., is averaging 18.9 ppg on 45.7% shooting from the field and 34.7% shooting from deep. He ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring, has notched double-digits in all but one game this winter and appears on both the Wooden and Naismith watch lists. On top of all that, the sometimes streaky wing went off for 34 points on 6-of-6 shooting from three in an 82-72 win for Tennessee over LSU in Knoxville last February.
He's joined on the perimeter by Richardson, a junior, who shoots an impressive 45.8% from downtown, and Barton, a senior who transferred in from Memphis after graduating there in just three years.
On the interior Stokes is a very similar player to LSU's Johnny O'Bryant. In fact the consensus was that the two were neck-and-neck at the end of last season for first-team all-conference honors. This season Stokes has raised his scoring and rebounding averages, despite the return of Maymon, but has seen a noticeable dip in his shooting percentage (down from 51.4% to 46.6%). Maymon, who picked up a redshirt last season while dealing with a knee injury, is a handful but does lack some of the explosiveness he had prior to the injury.
Finally, it should be noted that Tennessee holds a 61-43 series lead over LSU, including a five-game winning streak. Tonight marks the only meeting of the season between these two, pending any kind of postseason collision.
INSIDE THE MATCHUP
- The biggest question of the night is who will guard McRae (and how effective will they be)? LSU coach Johnny Jones didn't divulge much there, but point guard Anthony Hickey told TSD he believes Shavon Coleman will shoulder much of the load with Jarell Martin also taking some time on McRae. So it seems obvious LSU wants to put some height on McRae, making it difficult to shoot over the top. Coleman does figure to be the Tigers' best option, but he typically doesn't start. Should Martin check McRae to begin the game, it will be paramount the freshman avoid foul trouble and simply force McRae off the three-point line. Of course, at the rate Martin and LSU's wings have been beaten off the dribble, this could also pose a problem for the Tigers' bigs defensively, who will also want to avoid foul trouble.
- Speaking of the big men inside, with two 6-8, 260-pounders in the paint, Tennessee is going to cause LSU to go big, perhaps more than the Tigers are used to in many of their games this season. That means junior transfer John Odo (6-9, 236) will be a more central figure to the plot. Odo is only averaging 8.5 minutes per game, and was even a CD-DNP against Butler in Orlando, so it'll be interesting to see what effect he can have, especially defensively, with increased minutes. One thing's for sure: LSU will need four or five of his fouls tonight.
- LSU's Johnny O'Bryant was a monster in last year's Tennessee game, finishing with 24 points and nine rebounds. Of course he also fouled out of the game. This time around, with the aid of Jordan Mickey and John Odo, it will be key O'Bryant stays on the court as neither Mickey nor Odo has the bulk or weight he does to contend with Maymon and Stokes. O'Bryant should have a fire lit under his backside, after Jones openly admitted to benching his star forward in the second half versus Rhode Island. The end result should be an O'Bryant that's not only motivated but who's had proper shot selection drilled into him.
QUOTABLE JOHNNY JONES
On the state of the Volunteers …
"Tennessee is one of those teams that is playing extremely well. They've really played well their last three games, really demolishing in a sense their last three opponents, which includes a very good defensive basketball team in Virginia … They are really playing their best basketball right now, especially those last three games. They present a great challenge for us."
On making McRae uncomfortable …
"We haven't figured that one out yet. He was really comfortable last year when we played them, and I think other teams have had difficulty finding that out as well. Just this week, he's picking up his second Player of the Week award in our conference. I think that means that he is a very good and solid basketball player that can score inside and out. He has a great mid-range game."
On Tennessee's lengthy guards rebounding …
"McRae, Barton and Richardson – all those guys are very quick, rangy and they have the ability to rebound. The good this is we had two guys under six foot (Hickey and Stringer) who led us in rebounding in our last game. If we do a great job of blocking out and going to possess the ball, some good things can possibly happen for us. We are very capable, and we just have to be more in-tune to how important it is."
On what it meant for Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf to address the team …
"I thought it was really good because his message to them was ‘You're going to get out of the game what you put into it.' Coming from him, he put a great deal into it away from practice being in the gym alone and really working on his game. Getting them to understand how important it is for them to play together as a team and what it's going to mean to them down the road. Not necessarily now – but years from now and being able to embrace the moment. Utilizing your God-given gift and making sure that you maximize it. I think it was a really strong and powerful message to our team."
What do you think of the LSU-Tennessee matchup?