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What to Know: No. 5 Tennessee at No. 13 LSU

(Photo via the Shreveport Times)

For the second time in a week, the Vols are set to take on a top-15 team on the basketball court. This time, though, they’re hoping the outcome is much better than their last match-up.

No. 5 Tennessee (24-2, 12-1 SEC) travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to take on the No. 13 LSU Tigers (21-5, 11-2 SEC) in a pivotal conference match-up on Saturday. The Vols are currently in the top spot in the SEC standings, and LSU is right behind them thanks to owning a head-to-head tiebreaker over Kentucky.

The Vols faced a highly-ranked opponent last Saturday on the road as well when they faced-off with then-No. 5 Kentucky in Lexington. That game, though, went very poorly for Tennessee. The Wildcats manhandled the Vols en route to an 86-69 victory. Tennessee bounced back on Tuesday night in Knoxville with a strong defensive effort against Vanderbilt, winning 58-46.

LSU comes into Saturday’s contest having lost the last game they played. The Tigers were stunned at home by NCAA Tournament bubble team Florida. The Gators took LSU to overtime and found a way to edge out an 82-77 victory. That loss ended the Tigers’ four-game winning streak that included road wins over Mississippi State and Kentucky.

Tennessee and LSU have played a total of 111 times in basketball, but Saturday’s game will mark only the fifth time ever that both schools have been ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll when they face-off. The Vols are just 1-3 all-time against the Tigers when both teams are ranked.

This season, the Vols are 1-2 against AP Top 25 teams while LSU is 3-2 vs. teams ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll.

Here’s everything you need to know when the Vols take on LSU on Saturday at noon in Baton Rouge.

Attack the Glass

There isn’t a team in the SEC better at rebounding their own missed shots than LSU. And that could be a big problem for the Vols on Saturday.

Coming into Saturday’s game, LSU is averaging 14.5 offensive rebounds per game in SEC play. That’s easily the best in the conference, with the second-best being Georgia’s 13.1 offensive boards per game in conference play.

LSU’s 189 offensive rebounds in SEC play — combined with their 317 defensive boards — gives them the best rebounding total among conference teams during SEC play this season. The Tigers are averaging 38.9 rebounds per contest against SEC opponents.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has given up tons of offensive rebounds to teams in conference play this season. The Vols are giving up the fourth-most offensive boards to SEC opponents this year, allowing 11.9 offensive rebounds per game. The Vols do still have the most defensive rebounds per game among SEC teams at 26 per contest, but they’ve allowed far too many second-chance opportunities to opponents.

Just about everyone one LSU’s roster rebounds well, but they’re led by two giants in the post. Freshman Naz Reid and senior Kavell Bigby-Williams are both around 6-foot-10, and both average over six rebounds per game on the season. Both players are averaging over seven rebounds per contest in SEC play this year.

Off the bench, freshman forward Emmitt Williams is pulling down 5.5 rebounds per game on the season, and junior guard Marlon Taylor is getting an average of 4.8 rebounds a game in conference play.

Where in the World is Kyle Alexander? 

If the Vols want to stop LSU from getting a ton of rebounds, one of the players that can help the most is forward/center Kyle Alexander. Unfortunately for Tennessee, he’s been in a slump for about a month now.

The 6-foot-11 forward has scored in double figures just once since January 15th, and he hasn’t pulled down double-digit rebounds in a game since he hauled in 17 rebounds against Missouri back on January 8th. He’s only brought down eight or more rebounds three times in UT’s last 12 games, and he’s averaging just three rebounds per contest over the last four games.

Part of the problem for Alexander has been getting in foul trouble lately. He’s gotten some bad whistles in games, but he’s also gotten frustrated in others and picked up a lot of fouls. Alexander has fouled out of three of Tennessee’s last eight games, and he’s averaging just 19 minutes per game in his last four games and only 19.4 minutes per game over his last eight games.

With both Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams measuring in around 6-foot-10, 250 pounds each, Alexander is going to have to up his game on Saturday. If he doesn’t, LSU will likely win the rebounding battle big time.

An Elite Match-Up

Saturday’s game will feature arguably the top two point guards in the SEC. And they’ll be fun to watch going up against each other.

Tennessee’s Jordan Bone and LSU’s Tremont Waters are widely considered two of the best point guards in college basketball, and they’re likely the two best floor generals in the SEC this season. Both are finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, and both have been the heart of their teams’ offenses.

Bone is averaging 13.2 points per game and 6.5 assists per game for the Vols this season. He’s third on the team in points and leads the team in assists. Waters leads the Tigers in scoring with 15.7 points per game and also leads them in assists per game, racking up 5.9 assists per contest. He also leads LSU in steals per game, averaging 2.9 steals a night.

Bone, a 6-foot-3 junior, has been extremely efficient in SEC play this year. He has a assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play of 3.19. Waters, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, has an assist/turnover ratio of 2.05 in SEC play.

Waters isn’t afraid to pull up anywhere and shoot, either. He’s making 33.1 percent of his threes on the season and is shooting 43.1 percent overall. Those numbers are even better in SEC play, as he’s hitting 35.5 percent of his three-pointers and 44.7 percent of his overall shots against SEC competition.

The sophomore guard has scored in double figures in every SEC game he’s played this year, and he’s topped double-digits in 21 of the 26 games he’s played this season.

The two point guards have combined to total seven point and assist double-doubles this season. Waters has four while Bone has three.

Time for a Wake-Up?

Tennessee’s offense has been uncharacteristically poor in their last couple games. But LSU’s defense might be exactly what the Vols need to wake up offensively.

The Vols and Tigers are the top two scoring offenses in SEC play this season. LSU is averaging 84.7 points per game against conference foes this year, and Tennessee is averaging 82.2 points a game against SEC competition. But the big difference between the two teams is how many points they give up to opponents.

Tennessee is giving up just 68.5 points per game to SEC teams this year, the third-fewest in conference play. LSU, meanwhile, is giving up the second-most points per game to SEC opponents, allowing them to score 77.7 points a game.

The Vols have totaled just 69 and 58 points in their last two games, easily their lowest point total in a two-game stretch this season. But before that, the Vols were averaging well over 85 points per game on the season.

On six different occasions this season, LSU has allowed an SEC opponent to score 80 or more points. They’ve allowed teams to score at least 78 points in nine of their 13 SEC games this season. Conference opponents are shooting 46.3 percent against LSU on the year. That’s the second-worst opponent shooting percentage in conference play this year.

LSU does force a lot of turnovers, as they average the most steals per game (8.9) in SEC play and are second in turnovers forced (15.5), so they create a lot of extra possessions for themselves. Their pace of play also contributes to how many opportunities their opponents get, as they have the third-highest tempo in the SEC according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics.

The Tigers’ defense could be just what the doctor ordered for the Vols’ ailing offense on Saturday.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

Whichever team wins on Saturday will control their own destiny moving forward for the remainder of the SEC regular season.

If the Vols beat LSU, they’ll move to 13-1 in conference play and drop LSU to 11-3, severely damaging the Tigers’ chances of winning an outright regular season title. Tennessee’s match-up with Kentucky the following Saturday would likely be the de facto regular season SEC Championship Game in this scenario.

If LSU defeats Tennessee, however, the Tigers would tie the Vols with their overall conference record at 12-2, and they would own head-to-head tiebreakers with both Tennessee and Kentucky. That would give them a decided edge over the Vols and Wildcats in the race for the top seed in the SEC Tournament.

Saturday’s game has huge implications for the rest of the season, and both teams likely know what’s on the line.

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