The SEC provides yet another matchup of ranked teams this weekend when the No. 24 Tennessee Volunteers host the No. 13 LSU Tigers. While LSU is coming off back-to-back losses, the Volunteers haven’t won back-to-back games since before Christmas, which will be the goal on Saturday against the struggling Tigers. Of course, LSU won a previous meeting between these teams, 79-67.
Following back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Tennessee not long ago, the Tigers looked like bona fide contenders in the SEC. But after barely beating Florida and losing to Arkansas and Alabama, that may not be the case anymore. After going 12-0 during the non-conference season with wins over Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, LSU is just 3-3 in the SEC. While they look like a strong NCAA Tournament team, the Tigers would prefer to avoid suffering their third straight loss.
Part of LSU’s problem is that point guard Xavier Pinson has missed the team’s last three games. He could be back sooner rather than later but his absence has thrown the LSU backcourt for a loop. Pinson is their best passer and their best on-ball defender in addition to averaging 10.9 points per game. To be fair, Brandon Murray and Eric Gaines have done their best to take on a larger role without Pinson. But Murray had just two points in the loss to Arkansas while Gaines isn’t a strong outside shooter. The Tigers are also lacking backcourt depth, so there is nowhere else to turn to but Murray and Gaines with Pinson sidelined.
The silver lining for the Tigers is they have one of the best frontcourts in the SEC with Tari Eason and Darius Days. They are averaging 16 and 13.5 points per game, respectively while each is also averaging better than seven rebounds per game. Eason has registered a double-double twice in his last four games and is also a big reason why LSU is one of the best defensive teams in the SEC. However, Days has hit a rough patch, scoring just eight total points in his last two games, which helps to explain LSU’s two losses. While the Tigers have some good athletes elsewhere on the roster and get plenty of rebounding help from freshman center Efton Reid, they rely heavily on Eason and Days for their scoring. If Days continues to struggle to score, the Tigers don’t have anyone who can help fill the void.
The Vols have had some big wins this season, knocking off the likes of North Carolina and Arizona during the non-conference season. However, Tennessee is just 3-3 in SEC play, losing to three ranked teams while beating some of the weaker teams in the conference. While they beat Vanderbilt midweek, a blowout loss to Kentucky last week is still fresh in their memory.
Compared to last season, the Volunteers have a little more star power with junior Santiago Vescovi and freshman Kennedy Chandler taking center stage. They are combining for nearly 28 points and eight assists per game, forming one of the best backcourts in the SEC. Vescovi is a dangerous perimeter shooter while Chandler is frustrating opposing teams with his quickness. The likes of Zakia Ziegler, Josiah-Jordan James, and Auburn transfer Justin Powell have added depth to the Tennessee backcourt, although the Vols have been a little disappointed not to get more out of Victor Bailey, who averaged over 10 points per game last season.
The Tennessee frontcourt is also in good shape with upperclassmen Oliver Nkamhoua and John Fulkerson. Neither is averaging double figures on the season but both are important rebounders for the Vols and capable of making an impact on the offensive end. However, Fulkerson has been held to three points or less in three of his last four games, so he needs to step it up for Tennessee. The Vols are still waiting for 6’10’’ freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield to live up to his potential as a top-25 recruit. He had 10 points off the bench against Kentucky but has been a non-factor during SEC play otherwise, limiting the depth of the Tennessee frontcourt.
Clearly, both of these teams have some questions to answer heading into this game, especially in the frontcourt. However, Pinson is the clear wild card in this matchup. If he’s able to play, it’ll help the Tigers to get back on track. But if he sits again, the Volunteers could have enough of an edge in the backcourt to avenge their earlier loss to LSU.
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