Tigers’ men hoopsters open SEC play Saturday at Tennessee

While winning last year’s Southeastern Conference regular season men’s basketball championship, LSU did something it had never done before.

It went a perfect 9-0 in SEC road games in its 16-2 league record and 28-7 season.

That unblemished road mark may be in jeopardy Saturday when the Tigers play at Tennessee, a place where LSU has lost on four of its last five trips. Tip is at 11 a.m. CT and the game is televised by ESPNU.

The Tigers and the Vols, both 8-4, are revamping lineups after suffering major personnel losses from teams that advanced to last season’s Sweet 16.

Three of LSU’s defeats this year have been by two points each to Virginia Commonwealth, Utah State and USC. Last season, thanks to the clutch play and leadership of All-SEC point guard Tremont Waters and forward Naz Reid, the Tigers were 7-4 in games decided in overtime or by one possession.

Waters is now in the NBA’s G-League as is Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, three starters who moved on to the pros.

One of third-year LSU coach Will Wade’s problems he has yet to solve is finding someone like Waters with the poise to close out tight games.

“Some of it’s a learned skill, but some of it’s who you are every day and what you do every day,” Wade said. “We’re working on that. I’ve got to put our guys who are our closers in better positions. We’ve got to have some different things. We’ve got to have some different wrinkles late in the game and I think we’ve gone about addressing that.”

Sophomore Javonte Smart, who played mostly off-guard last season but filled in at times for Waters, has had the unenviable task of replacing Waters at the point.

Smart, who’s averaging 10.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals, continues to be a work in progress.

While he has improved slightly with his decision-making – he’s had 37 assists and 10 turnovers in his last six games compared to 25 assists and 26 turnovers in his first six games – his shooting remains chilly.

He’s shooting just 37.9 percent from the field, including an icy 25.5 percent (13-of-51) in 3-pointers. Yet, Wade feels that Smart has progressed.

“He hasn’t played point guard before,” Wade said. “It’s a delicate balance that he’s figuring out. There’s a give and take. He’s learning. He’s got a much better feel for it now than he did two weeks ago than he did two months ago. In another two weeks, he’ll have a better feel than he does now.”

The pleasant surprises in non-conference play have been starting forwards Darius Days and Trenton Watford.

Mays, a 6-6, 240-pound sophomore who Wade calls “one of our most consistent workers”, came off the bench last season as primarily a 3-point shooter. Now, he’s averaging 13.2 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds. His added off-season bulk has made him tough to handle inside. He has scored in double-figures 11 times with five double-double doubles.

Watford, a 6-9, 235-pound five-star recruit from Birmingham, Alabama, has played with poise. He’s averaging 12.6 points and 6.1 rebounds and is shooting 49.1 percent from the field.

“He’s playing harder, he’s got a nose for the ball,” Wade said of Watford. “He’s going to get the ball. He’s coming on and now we’ve got to keep him consistent and keep him hungry and keep him urgent and keep him moving along the same path. He’s certainly coming into his own and is playing quite a bit better.”

LSU’s biggest bugaboos so far, especially in defeats, are a stagnant offense, too many turnovers and getting badly outrebounded on the offensive boards.

The Tigers need to avoid all three in their trip to Knoxville.

Few teams nationally lost as much firepower from a year ago than Tennessee. The Vols lost five of their top six players, resulting in a loss of 70 percent of last season’s scoring, 65.1 percent of rebounding, 71.9 of blocked shots and 66 percent of assists.

Included in the players lost is Lamonte Turner, a senior redshirt point guard who returned this season and then announced Dec. 21 he was ending his playing career due to thoracic outlet syndrome.

That leaves starting guard Jordan Bowden, who’s averaging 12.9 points, as the lone returning senior. The Vols are also getting scrappy play from 6-9 redshirt junior forward John Fulkerson, who’s averaging 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds and is shooting 68.3 percent from the field.

“The way they play and as physical and tough as they are, they’re always going to be very, very good just because of how well coached they are and their style of play,” Wade said.

After the Tigers face Tennessee, LSU has a two-game homestand against Arkansas (11-1) Wednesday at 8 p.m. and vs. Mississippi State (9-3) Saturday at 7 p.m.

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