Just four days ago the Tigers (15-4, 3-1) were riding a three-game conference winning streak and a wave of feel good fan support into their primetime showdown with No. 15 Xavier. However, the Musketeers left Baton Rouge with an impressive win, and the Tigers’ streak suffered a setback.
“We felt like they were the better team that night,” said senior guard Garrett Temple. “They made shots; we didn’t make shots. We feel like we got shots that we’ve made in the past, but we just didn’t knock them down. You have to give credit to them. They came in and played a good game. They stayed poised, and you just have to learn from it. We don’t have any moral victories.”
Now LSU finds itself back on the road, where it is just 1-3 this season, against preseason SEC favorite Tennessee. The Volunteers have suffered a few setbacks in January, but those four losses are to No. 18 Memphis, No. 24 Kentucky, No. 20 Gonzaga and defending national champion Kansas.
“They are very, very battle tested. They’ve probably played the toughest schedule out of any team in the country,” said LSU coach Trent Johnson. “Offensively, they are very, very skilled; they are capable of going off on large scoring spurts if you’re not defending at a high rate.”
The 6-foot-7, 215-pound Smith leads the Vols in scoring with 17.7 points a game, while the 6-foot-9, 242-pound Chism averages 12.6 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
Tennessee is very athletic and has four starters that are 6-foot-7 or better which poses matchup problems for their opponents led by 6-foot-7 slashing guard J.P. Prince.
“It’s hard to find something wrong with Tyler Smith,” said Johnson. “Probably the biggest compliment I can give a player like him is he probably impacts more than any other player in our league, let alone maybe in the country, but he’s not the only guy on that team. You can go on and on about Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, who was at Arizona when I was in the Pac 10.”
Injuries could severely limit the Tigers when they take the court in Knoxville. Johnson told reporters Monday that senior forward Quintin Thornton could miss the game due to injury, and Temple has been limited in practice as well.
“We’re a little banged up right now,” Johnson said. “Quentin Thornton is having a problem with his Achilles, so it’s going to be day-to-day in terms of if he will make the trip. Garrett Temple is having a little trouble with his ankle so we held him out today. Other than that it’s just the normal nicks and bruises that occur this time of the year. Obviously, there are some guys on the team that are freshmen that haven’t played multiple minutes, so I fully expect them to have an opportunity to step in and play and get back to playing quality basketball.”
Thornton is leading the Tigers’ bench in minutes as the backup to senior center Chris Johnson. Temple is considered LSU’s best defender and not having him at 100 percent would be a serious problem.
Since the Xavier loss, Johnson and his players have refused to make excuses for fading in the second half. According to the headman, the Tigers took the same shots they did in wins against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but simply could not get them to fall down.
Rather than focus on Xavier, however, Johnson and his team are looking ahead and that all begins tonight as the Tigers have a lot of basketball left to play.
“We came out hard and played well and had a stretch there offensively where we had some good shots that just didn’t go down,” Johnson said. “So it’s one of those situations where you have to put it behind you and understand now we’re back into league play and we have 12 games before the SEC tournament, we have six on the road and six at home and you have to compete at a high level like we did against Xavier.”