So, here's Thursday's storyline in a nutshell: The advantage is Tennessee's while the ball is in the backcourt, where its press can force turnovers by the dozen. Once the Tigers cross midcourt, however, the advantage shifts to their imposing big men.
Can Tennessee force enough backcourt miscues to neutralize LSU's frontcourt dominance? Probably. The Vols have forced a whopping 89 turnovers in their last four games, an average of 22.25 per outing.
So, what has gotten into Tennessee's defense lately?
"I think it's a sense of urgency," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think it's realizing what our identity has to be. I think the players understand how it all works together (forcing turnovers, then scoring in transition)."
The Vols' defensive intensity was a no-show in their 81-64 loss at South Carolina on Feb. 17. Pearl responded by chewing some butt in the post-game locker room and again the following day in the film room.
"I think that was one teaching tool," the coach said, grinning smugly.
That tool must've worked because Tennessee's defense - paced by JaJuan Smith and Josh Tabb - has sparked four consecutive wins since the meltdown in Columbia. Defense will be the key against LSU, as well. When the Tigers dominate the backboards and limit their turnovers, they win. When they fail to dominate the backboards and fail to limit their turnovers, they lose.
Consider their last six games:
- LSU shot 61 percent from the floor and outrebounded Ole Miss 36-23 but lost 71-70 due to 16 turnovers.
- LSU hit just 3 of 16 3's and lost the backboards 38-28 in a 56-50 home-floor loss to Mississippi State.
- Minus 6-9, 290-pound Glen Davis, the Tigers lost the boards 35-33 but hung with Kentucky in a 70-63 loss at Lexington by committing just 9 turnovers.
- LSU, minus Davis again, upset visiting Florida 66-56 by winning the boards 35-22 and limiting the Gators to 2-of-17 shooting beyond the arc. Going against form, the Tigers won in spite of 18 turnovers.
- Minus Davis for the third game in a row, LSU won the backboards 38-30 but lost the game 80-68 at Auburn due to 15 turnovers.
- LSU, with Davis coming off the bench, beat South Carolina 61-52 by winning the boards 40-30 and committing just 11 turnovers.