It’s Perspiration vs. Desperation at 6 p.m. tonight in Fayetteville when LSU plays its final SEC regular season road game at Arkansas.
The Tigers (20-9 overall, 11-5 SEC), by all projections, are currently in the NCAA tournament field as a No. 8 or 9 seed. If they won their first-round game, they would play a No. 1 regional seed in the second round.
But LSU first needs to sweat clinching a top four spot in the league regular season race to earn a bye to next Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinals in Nashville. The Tigers are currently tied for second in the league with Florida, which split games vs. LSU this season.
“The seeding and those sorts of things will take care of itself if we win,” LSU third-year coach Will Wade said. “It’s (the Arkansas game) is an opportunity for a quad one road win, so it would be a big win for us, another feather in the cap. It would give us a winning road record in the SEC.”
Arkansas (18-11, 6-10) is desperately trying to make a late season comeback for an NCAA tourney bid under first-year coach Eric Musselman, a former LSU assistant. The Razorbacks have won two of their last three games after suffering five straight losses when sophomore guard Isaiah Joe was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Joe, who had been averaging 16 points for the then-16-5 Hogs team, is back. But Arkansas has been carried lately by junior guard Mason Jones, the SEC’s leading scorer averaging 21.3 points.
Jones is the only player in the SEC to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. On Monday, he became the third player in SEC history to win or share the league’s Player of the Week four times in one season after averaging 31.5 points in two games last week.
“Having (Isaiah) Joe back, they obviously have been a lot better,” Wade said. “He just looks like the freshest guy on the court. Jones is playing at an extremely high level, he does a great job of drawing fouls. Jimmy Whitt Jr. killed us at our place, he’s the one that really destroyed us (in a 79-77 LSU win in January).
“Whitt is a prolific scorer from mid-range, Joe is a prolific shooter, Jones does it from anywhere so if all three of those guys go off you’ve got zero chance of beating them. We will have to find a way to shut down one or a couple of those guys.”
After LSU went 4-5 in February, following an 8-0 January, Wade sounded optimistic earlier this week after the Tigers beat Texas A&M 64-50 last Saturday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Wade has had to reshuffle his playing rotation again with the loss of top reserve Charles Manning Jr., who sustained a broken foot for the second time (he has broken his left and right foot) since Jan. 14.
He placed senior guard Marlon Taylor into the starting lineup with sparkplug sophomore forward Emmitt Williams taking a sixth man role. Williams requested the move understanding the Tigers needed better play off their extremely thin bench.
“I feel as good as about our team as I have in about six weeks,” Wade said. “Moving forward, I really feel like we’re in a good place, I feel like we’re starting to play better, I feel like we’re starting to do some good things. When I’m up there talking to them you can feel the energy. You can just feel it. I’m hopeful I’m not feeling indigestion or something.”
After tonight’s game in which Arkansas is celebrating Senior Night, LSU closes the regular season at home against Georgia on Saturday at 1 p.m.
It will be the Tigers’ Senior Day honoring Taylor, Skylar Mays and Marshall Graves. Mays, a 6-4 guard from Baton Rouge who has scored 1,570 career points in his four-year career, will be making his 121st start in 130 games for the Tigers.