Tigers hope to maintain their “spell” over the Vols on Saturday in the PMAC

LSU junior point guard Javonte Smart heads into Saturday’s game vs. Tennessee in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center averaging 25 points in two wins over the Vols the last two seasons.

Maybe it’s just individual matchups or maybe the way the ball bounces, but sometimes there are basketball teams that inexplicably have some sort of winning spell over their opponents.

Like LSU winning 4 of its last 5 games over Mississippi State, but losing 8 of its last 10 to Alabama.

Or the Tigers losing 5 of their last 7 to Florida yet winning 3 of their last 4 over Tennessee teams possessing supposedly superior talent.

That’s the way it appears for a fourth straight season when 16th-ranked Tennessee (14-4 overall, 7-4 SEC) visits LSU (12-6, 7-4 SEC) Saturday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for 1 p.m. ESPN televised tipoff.

The Vols have lost on their last two trips to Baton Rouge, including an 82-80 overtime thriller two years between the then-No. 5 Vols and then-No. 13 LSU. Then-LSU freshman Javonte Smart, starting in place of injured point guard Tremont Waters, scored a career-high 29 points including a pair of game-winning free throws with 0.6 seconds left.

Back in 2016-17 in what was the last LSU home game coached by Johnny Jones before he was fired after five seasons, the Tigers broke a school-record 15-game losing streak with a 92-82 upset of the Vols.

On this trip, Tennessee, No. 11 in the latest NCAA NET rating with four wins over top 35 teams, represents a huge opportunity for LSU (No. 32 in the NCAA NET) to improve its resume to earn an NCAA tournament bid.

Until the Tigers’ 94-80 SEC road win Wednesday night at Mississippi State, they had lost four of their last five games. According to sportsbettingdime.com, the Tigers had dropped to fifth in the SEC in the odds to win the league regular season championship, the odds being more of an indicator where LSU is in the picking order of SEC teams vying for NCAA tourney invites.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” LSU forward Darius Days after the Tigers’ win at Mississippi State, which was LSU’s third Quad 1 win (the most valuable type victory to boost NET ratings). “We’ve got some games coming up, like Tennessee, that can help our (NCAA tournament) seeding.”

LSU enjoyed its best shooting game of the season in the Mississippi State win, hitting 61.3 percent from the field against one of the best defenses in the SEC.

The Tigers face an even stronger challenge from Tennessee, which is ranked first in the SEC and 10th nationally in scoring defense allowing just 60.8 points per game. The Vols, who start four guards (two sophomore and two freshmen) and redshirt senior forward John Fulkerson, also lead the league in field goal percentage defense (39.6 percent allowed), turnover margin (plus 4.2) and assists to turnover ratio (1.8).

“They’re as good defensively as I’ve seen,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “They’re in a stance, they’re low, it’s like watching a coaching clinic when you watch them guard.”

Tennessee has allowed just three opposing players to score 20 points or more this season, a challenge that LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas will surely accept.

Thomas, who leads the SEC scoring and is third in Division 1 averaging 22.4 points per game, has scored 20 or more in 13 games this season including a game-high 25 points in the most recent win at Mississippi State.

But the Tiger that Tennessee is most concerned about is Smart, the crafty junior point guard who’s ranked No. 8 in the SEC in scoring (15.8 ppg), No. 1 in 3-point percentage (44.8 percent), No. 4 in assists (4.2 apg), No. 2 in 3-point field goals made per game (2.6), tied for No. 1 in assists to turnover ratio (1.6) and No. 2 in minutes played (35.1).

Smart is 2-0 vs. the Vols, averaging 25 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 44.4 percent from the field, 46.7 from 3-point range and 91.7 from the free throw line.

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Ron Higgins

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