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Prediction Panel: No. 5 Tennessee at No. 13 LSU

Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI

The RTI team makes their picks for the No. 5 Vols’ match-up with No. 13 LSU this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for this Saturday’s big game.

Nathanael’s Pick

For whatever reason, I just don’t have a great feeling about this game. I think Tennessee is going to play better against LSU than they did against Kentucky, but I also think the Tigers just present too many tough match-ups for the Vols in this one.

LSU has two giants down low that promise to give UT trouble. Both Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams are around 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, and both are excellent rebounders. Reid is a physical freak and can create his own shot inside and outside. He was a guard who hit a huge growth spurt growing up, so he has good ball-handling skills and a good jumper. And he shows that off all while playing extremely physical in the paint.

The Tigers are superb at grabbing offensive rebounds. No team in the SEC is better at gathering their own misses, and it’s not even close. That’s going to give Tennessee fits because the Vols have been really bad at preventing teams from getting second chances this season.

Sophomore point guard Tremont Waters also concerns me. He’s the big star for LSU, and he’s an effective shooter and distributor. He’s second only to Jordan Bone in terms of best point guards in the SEC in my opinion, but you could certainly make an argument for putting Waters first.

There are certainly a variety of factors that play into Tennessee’s favor as well. LSU had to play on Wednesday and played in overtime in that contest, while the Vols played on Tuesday. So the Vols got an extra day of rest for this game. The Tigers’ defense is also pretty bad, as they’re allowing SEC opponents to score 77.7 points per game — the second-most points allowed by any team in SEC play this season. That’s great news for a UT offense that’s struggled the last couple games.

But with Kyle Alexander, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bowden all seeming to be in slumps at the moment, I just don’t have a great feeling that the Vols will be able to take advantage of LSU’s sub-par defense right now. If this game was played back in early February, I’d feel differently.

With LSU’s length inside and at the guard position (outside of the 5-foot-11 Waters), and with UT’s recent struggles, I just don’t know if the Vols can pull this one out. Throw in the fact that this game is tipping off at 11:00 AM local time, and it just feels like an ugly game waiting to happen.

The Vols are more than capable of winning this game, and they could certainly break out of their funk in this one. But LSU likes to play physical, and I think they’ll be a little hungrier after their loss to Florida on Wednesday night.

Pick: LSU, 72-68

MVP: Naz Reid, LSU forward

I expect Tremont Waters to actually get defended fairly well by the Vols’ perimeter players, but I just don’t know who UT has that can match-up well enough with Reid. I’m afraid Kyle Alexander is going to get into foul trouble again, and Grant Williams doesn’t have the length needed to really bottle up Reid. John Fulkerson isn’t gifted enough athletically to guard Reid, and Derrick Walker doesn’t play enough to make much of a difference here. I think Reid could end up with 20 points and 10 rebounds in this one.

Ben’s Pick

I don’t feel comfortable picking Tennessee, but I’m rolling on the Vols. Mainly because they are a veteran team, and I think the majority of their problems have to do with shots simply not falling – particularly on Tuesday against Vanderbilt.

What worries me about the match-up is that LSU is an excellent rebounding team. The Tigers are the best offensive rebounding team in the SEC, while the Vols are the third-worst. That is an extremely concerning trend that could quite simply be the difference in the basketball game.

What also worries me about Saturday’s game is LSU’s length and athleticism. I believe Naz Reid is a nightmare match-up for Tennessee, especially for Grant Williams. When Williams has struggled at Tennessee, it’s been because his opponent has length and athleticism.

The Vols are a team that, when they’re playing well, they’re playing inside-out. Because of Reid’s potential to be a mismatch for Williams and Kyle Alexander, Tennessee’s guards will have to have a big game and be the difference. Because Tennessee will have to win in a way that isn’t necessarily their brand of basketball, I’m not too confident in picking the Vols.

But here’s why I’m picking Tennessee: the Vols are one of the best teams in the country and have much more depth than LSU. If Williams is shut down, other Vols can step up and win it for Tennessee. LSU, on the other hand, need Reid and Tremont Waters to have a big game in order to win.

The Tigers are relying on two players for the most part, whereas Tennessee has multiple players it can lean on to pull off the victory. I expect Jordan Bone and Waters to cancel each other out in terms of production, but Williams, Alexander, and Admiral Schofield can find a way to have the upper-hand on Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, and Emmitt Williams in the paint.

Another element to consider is the start time. Last week’s game at Kentucky wasn’t until 8 p.m. ET, and the Vols had to sit around all day and ponder. Any athlete will tell you they prefer the early tip so they don’t have to sit around all day before they play. With an 11 a.m. local tip, I think it plays into the Vols’ favor, especially because, for the most part, they’ve played better on the road.

Pick: Tennessee, 74-70

MVP: Jordan Bone, Tennessee point guard

Though I think Bone and Waters’ production cancels out, Bone will be the MVP for reasons that extend beyond the boxscore. After struggling to dictate the pace of play against Kentucky last week, Bone will get back on track and control the pace of the game. Bone is the best point guard in the conference for a reason, and the biggest reason is because of how he commands the offense. That will be on full display in Baton Rouge. And if he does need to be more aggressive in trying to score the basketball, I believe he will.

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