The SEC is a fascinating basketball ecosystem this year. The Tennessee Volunteers aren’t the strangest creature within that ecosystem — the South Carolina Gamecocks would probably claim that distinction — but they do represent the plot twists and adjusted realities which have become part of SEC hoops this winter.
How weird is the 2019 SEC? The most talented team could finish third in the league (Kentucky). A team which went 5-8 in non-conference play (the aforementioned South Carolina squad) could get a double-bye into the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Auburn is highly-rated in offensive and defensive metrics but has coupled blowout wins with close losses and is therefore a bubble team — a bubble team in good shape, yes, but still a bubble team instead of a No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed.
How weird is the 2019 SEC? LSU won in Rupp Arena and then lost at home to Florida on Wednesday night. Florida couldn’t win big SEC games at home but has now won at Alabama and at LSU to dramatically improve its NCAA Tournament chances. Ole Miss and Mississippi State could both make the NCAA Tournament in the same season for just the second time in recorded history (2002).
How weird is the 2019 SEC? This might be the best example of all: Tennessee is now the team other SEC programs evidently look forward to playing.
Absorb that statement for a moment and consider how preposterous it sounds. Tennessee, a school without a single appearance in the Men’s Final Four, is the “circle in red” opponent for multiple SEC contenders.
Just consider what has happened the past week and a half:
Last week, Kentucky hosted LSU on Tuesday and got ambushed in Rupp Arena by the Tigers. Kentucky played a very uneven and inconsistent game and paid the price. UK’s next opponent — at home on Saturday — was Tennessee. Kentucky produced a complete performance which underscored how incomplete the Wildcats truly were against LSU.
Now fast-forward to this week: LSU, on top of the SEC, came home after doing some heavy lifting on the road (especially that Kentucky win) and lost to Florida. Gee, what was LSU’s next game after the Florida contest? A home game with Tennessee this coming Saturday.
What’s the old saying? One’s an accident and two’s a trend.
SEC contenders just can’t wait to play Tennessee. They lose focus at home in the games preceding a visit from the Vols.
Tennessee might immediately benefit from LSU’s loss. The Vols are, for the moment, in sole possession of the SEC lead. They have one fewer SEC loss than LSU and Kentucky. However, much as the LSU win over Kentucky made it a lot more likely that Kentucky would come out with guns blazing against the Vols last Saturday, this LSU loss to Florida improves the odds that the Tigers will be fierce and furious against the Big Orange this Saturday in Baton Rouge.
The challenge could not be clearer for the Vols: They have become the team opponents want to play. They have become the ultimate target in the SEC, despite the lack of a Final Four pedigree.
Tennessee didn’t respond to this challenge against Kentucky, but hey: That was KENTUCKY, a program which expects to win big in college basketball.
This Saturday’s test in Baton Rouge is not hugely different in terms of the talent level of Tennessee’s opponent, or the motivational fuel that opponent will possess. LSU is extremely skilled and should be roaring with energy on Saturday at noon Eastern, 11 a.m. Central.
What IS profoundly different about Tennessee-LSU, compared to Tennessee-Kentucky, is that LSU does not have the ingrained basketball culture of Kentucky. LSU is a football school where baseball is the second most popular sport and gymnastics — one could argue — is third. LSU basketball is a niche sport in some eyes. The program has certainly enjoyed its moments in the sun under Dale Brown and then in 2006 under John Brady, but Tiger hoops doesn’t inspire the same fervor as baseball does in Louisiana.
It is not a piece of cake to win in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, but it’s not Rupp Arena. It will be difficult for Tennessee to win on Saturday, but the intimidation factor of Rupp and the orchestrations of John Calipari won’t be part of the drama.
Tennessee could potentially lose this game against LSU yet still learn what it takes to graduate to a Final Four level. It could be that Tennessee has to get beaten up a few more times before it makes the course corrections needed to reach college basketball’s Holy Grail. It could get a great NCAA Tournament draw which minimizes its flaws. All these things COULD happen.
However, if we are being realistic, Tennessee needs to learn from its Kentucky experience and win a high-end road game against an opponent which will go all-out to take down the Vols, a team SEC contenders dearly want to beat. If Tennessee wins this game against LSU, it will be seen as a team which can do great things in March. If it gets shredded the way it was against Kentucky, people will write off the Vols… and it would be hard to argue with such a reaction.
Tennessee might not be the best team in the SEC, but the Vols — not Kentucky — have become the team every SEC opponent circles in red.
If the Vols want to be a team worthy of that “circle in red” centrality, now is the chance to prove it, in a town whose English name is Red Stick.
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