When slow-paced Tennessee tangles with LSU (15-8, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) 6 p.m. today in Thompson-Boling Arena, it’s anyone’s guess as to which Volunteer team will take the floor.
The team that scored 36 and 38 points in back-to-back early season losses to Georgetown and Virginia? Or the team that dismantled a Nerlens Noel-less Kentucky squad Saturday behind a 50-point first half?
As is the norm with any coach, LSU coach Johnny Jones is braced for the latter.
“[Tennessee] is a team that’s playing extremely well,” Jones said. “For them to play that well throughout the [Kentucky] game, it shows they’re playing as well as any team in our league right now.”
Identical conference records aside, Jones’ Tigers contrast mightily with the upstart Vols (14-10, 6-6 SEC), as the Tennessee offense resembles that of coach Cuonzo Martin’s mentor at Purdue, Gene Keady — deliberate, half-court sets with a reliance on 3-point shooting.
That strategy was more than evident Saturday, when junior guard Trae Golden exploded for 24 points and Tennessee shot a perfect 5-for-5 from behind the arc as it humiliated the defending NCAA champion Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tasked with defending the potent frontcourt are Tiger sophomore Anthony Hickey, the NCAA leader in steals, and senior Charles Carmouche.
Carmouche, who poured in a career-high 21 points Saturday against Mississippi State, credited Hickey and fellow guard Andre Stringer’s practice habits as the catalyst for the defensive effort on the perimeter.
“We get after it every day in practice,” Carmouche said. “We are able to guard each other and I think we have some pretty quick guards. We defend and we play hard. I think that defines our team.”
Guard play aside, LSU sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant III is tasked with the load of handling Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who averages 12.5 points and 8.6 boards per game.
O’Bryant, now the team’s leading scorer at 13 points per game with eight double-doubles in the last nine games, said after Saturday’s win against Mississippi State he senses the Tigers aren’t fazed by their lack of height.
“We are not the biggest team, but the past few games we’ve played much bigger,” O’Bryant said. “[Senior center] Andrew [Del Piero] has done well the past few games. I’ve done well. We just played much bigger.”
Stokes has matched O’Bryant’s torrid pace of late, cementing himself as one of the conference’s premier big men and the most physical presence O’Bryant has faced since Florida’s Patric Young on Jan. 12, according to Jones.
Jones praised Martin’s bunch for the effort on both ends of the floor, as they played an “excited and fired up” brand of basketball while excelling in taking the ball to the basket and executing in a midrange game.
“You’re hopeful that because of what you do, you force your opponents to have to adjust to what you do,” Jones said. “We want to force them into playing into their weakness more than playing into their strength.”