After an up-and-down non-conference slate that set up a historic start to Southeastern Conference play, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center will serve as the site of one of college basketball’s biggest games of the week on Saturday at 11 a.m. when No. 13 LSU hosts No. 5 Tennessee.
The game will serve as a battle for first place in the SEC in front of a crowd that sold out the PMAC three weeks before opening tip.
The game represents the biggest in the arena since the Ben Simmons-led Tigers hosted Buddy Hield and Oklahoma in 2016, and this feels even bigger.
That’s because this one has real stakes. The winner will have an opportunity to run the table in the SEC and win the league’s regular season championship.
LSU (21-5, 11-2 SEC) enters the game coming off its second home SEC loss of the season as it dropped an overtime game to Florida after a slow start against a squad looking to keep its postseason hopes alive.
The Tigers likely won’t have the luxury of overtime if they start of slow against the Volunteers (24-2, 12-1) who have established themselves as one of the nation’s top teams with dominant performances against most teams they come across.
Tennessee was considered the top-ranked team in the country until a brutal 86-69 loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena last Saturday. The Volunteers are still trying to right the ship after a tighter-than-anticipated victory against Vanderbilt on Tuesday with another game against Kentucky on the schedule.
LSU is also trying to right the ship after an overtime loss to Florida, after which LSU coach Will Wade was incensed with his team’s effort and crucial plays down the stretch.
“I’m kicking myself,” Wade said. I should have given Skylar some more opportunities probably later in the game. We’ve got other good guys and we’ll give opportunities as needed.”
Tennessee has one of the most talented and experienced rosters in the country, let alone the SEC.
The duo of junior forward Grant Williams and senior guard Admiral Schofield provide a matchup nightmare for any team they face.
Williams is a national player of the year candidate averaging 19.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and Schofield represents a matchup nightmare for anybody standing 6-foot-6 and carrying 241 pounds with a pure shot from anywhere on the floor.
Schofield averaged 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, shooting 48 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from the 3-point line.
Wade also pointed to the rest of Tennessee’s regular starting five as full of great players with loads of experience as well.
“Well (Jordan) Bone is really good too, their point guard gets them going,” Wade said. “(Kyle) Alexander’s a game-changer down low. They’ve got a very good team, a very, very good team. They’ve got everything you want. They can pound the paint, they’ve got efficient three-point shooters with (Jordan) Bowden and Lamonte Turner.
“Then Bone’s a kid – we were a finalist for him at VCU. I did an in-home visit with him when I was the head coach at VCU. I wanted him bad. He’s just an ultimate competitor and he’s really, really improved and gotten better.”
Bone averages 13.2 points and 6.5 assists per game with ony 55 turnovers all year for a better than 3:1 assist-turnover ratio.
The Volunteers play a similar style of basketball as LSU, trying to pound it into the post offensively and going man-to-man defensively on a vast majority of possessions.
“The only difference between their offense and our offense they shoot a little bit higher percentage from three and they don’t turn the ball over as much as we do,” Wade said. “They get the ball in the paint – that’s why they’re the third most efficient offense in the country. They’re the most efficient offense in our league. Being able to get in the paint and win the paint war is going to be a big part of the game.”
As a result, it will be critical for Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams — LSU’s best and biggest post players — to not only play well but avoid foul trouble.
Reid has come on strong in the second half of games recently after struggling to get involved in the first half. Going into the Florida game, he was averaging 11.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in the second half of SEC games while shooting 58.4 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from the 3-point line and 83.3 percent from the free throw line. He continued that trend against the Gators, tallying 11 points and nine rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field in the second half.
“He just feels his way out,” Wade said. “In games he hasn’t played well in he’s picked up some early fouls. He likes to get into the swing of the game.”
WHO: No. 13 LSU vs. No. 5 Tennessee
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 23, 11 a.m.
WHERE: Pete Maravich Assembly Center (13,215)
BROADCAST: ESPN, 98.1 FM
NET RANKINGS: No. 16 LSU, No. 6 Tennessee
THE STAKES: First Place in the SEC
KENPOM PREDICTION: 81-79 Tennessee