By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Greater resurrections have happened in three days, but two weeks ahead of Easter Sunday, if LSU hopes to hear its named called on Selection Sunday, they’ll need a big weekend in Nashville at the SEC Tournament.
Fresh off a double-bye, the No. 4 seed Tigers (18-13, 11-7 SEC) open the tournament with No. 12 seed Tennessee (14-16, 6-12 SEC) at approximately 2:30 p.m. CST at Bridgestone Arena, and with its at-large hopes all but burst, LSU is well aware it will likely need to win three straight games to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a new season for us,” said LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “There’s a great opportunity at the conference tournament. It’s on a stage of its own because that’s a true representative of your conference champion. The team with the automatic bid comes from the conference tournament. We have an opportunity to play in that, and we’ve positioned ourselves through the hard work and effort that we’ve played with all year long to get a double bye. That’s what you play for to have an opportunity to play only three days instead of four or five days in that tournament.”
LSU gets a rematch with Tennssee, who handed the Tigers the second of three straight losses that saw them fall from first place in the SEC to out of the NCAA Tournament picture. That game also cost LSU senior guard Keith Hornsby, whose season and career at LSU are finished after undergoing season-ending surgery this week. The Volunteers, meanwhile, are still without leading scorer Kevin Punter, who has been out since that 81-65 Tennessee triumph on Feb. 20.
But the Tigers aren’t focused on the opponent. Their concentration is on self-improvement.
“We’ve beat Kentucky,” said Ben Simmons, the SEC Freshman of the Year. “We’ve beat Vanderbilt. Texas A&M. We’ve played everybody and beat them. Going into the tournament, we’re comfortable. We know we can win. It’s a new opportunity for us. We just gotta stop talking and play.”
One area LSU will have to shore up dramatically is its second half defense. In the Tigers’ last five games, they’ve allowed more than 52 points per second half, losing three of those five and blowing large leads in the other two.
LSU's second half defense
vs. Tenn: 50 points
vs. Ark: 51
vs. Florida: 62
vs. Missouri: 47
vs. Kentucky: 53
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) March 5, 2016
“The last couple of games, the second halves have not been a good showing for us,” said sophomore forward Craig Victor. “Defense is about chemistry, everybody being on one accord. We haven’t been playing on one accord on defense. The first half, everything has felt normal. You look up in the second half, we’re down 20.”
“Defense and rebounding, that’s the main thing,” added SEC All-Freshman team honoree Antonio Blakeney, who has scored 19.6 points per game over his last nine. “We’re getting killed on the boards. We have too many defensive lapses. We have times where we do do well defensivley. We just have to take away those lapses.”
Tennessee is led by do-everything senior Armani Moore, who scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and handed out 7 assists in the only other matchup between the two contests. LSU, the leading scoring club in the league at 80.0 points per game, will lean on Simmons, who scored 21 points the last time the two teams faced but turned the ball over eight times. The Tigers will have to figure out how to get stops on the other end, as they are 6-1 this season when holding opponents below 70 points, but just 12-12 in all other contests.
“Defensively, we have to try to improve and get better, take some other positive steps along with rebounding the basketball,” said Jones. “We average 80 points. We led the league in scoring, but we have to do a much better job on the defensive end of the floor. Rebounding has been a deficit for us, and we’ve been deficient in those areas.”
It’s do or die now for LSU. A loss will relegate the Tigers to the NIT, and anything short of three victories will likely deal the same fate.
“The talent we have in this team is unmatched,” said Victor. “But we’ve got three days and three games to get it right.”
1. Changes brewing? Look for LSU to tinker with its starting lineup, in more than one spot. The staff hasn’t been happy with the inconsistent play at point guard and at the forward spot next to Simmons. Don’t be shocked if at least one new starter (Josh Gray, perhaps) enters the lineup, and perhaps another big gets a run out of the gate in Victor’s place.
2. Tone Away from Home: The splits on Blakeney at home and away are pretty stark. In the PMAC, Blakeney averages 13.2 points per game and hits 41 percent of his 3s. In road/neutral site games, he’s down to 11.5 points per game on 27 percent 3-point shooting, including 3-for-17 shooting from deep in LSU’s only two neutral site games in Brooklyn earlier this season. Blakeney’s confident that trend won’t continue.
“At first, it was a confidence thing. A hoop is a hoop. I’m shooting better period now, home and away. I’m just going to try to go up there and shoot the ball the same way.
3. Ben’s Books: Much was made over the last few days over Simmons’ schooling. The freshman was ruled out of contention for the Wooden Award because he failed to qualify academically. If anyone else was bothered, Ben wasn’t. “It was little things like missing a couple of classes,” Simmons said. “If it was somebody else, it may not have been brought up. Now it’s one of those things that’s everywhere.”