LSU-Tennessee Preview

Tennessee’s roller-coaster campaign has included the arrest and

suspension of four players, followed by a win over the nation’s top

team less than two weeks later.

But the 15th-ranked Volunteers could be peaking at just the

right time, and they’ll hope to begin the postseason with a fourth

straight victory as they face LSU in an opening-round SEC

Tournament game Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.

The New Year’s Day arrests of Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian

Williams and Melvin Goins marred Tennessee’s season, and left the

Vols with just six scholarship players for an extended stretch.

But Tennessee (23-7) beat then-No. 1 Kansas while short-handed

on Jan. 10, and all of the suspended players except Smith have

returned to help the team play some of their best basketball

lately.

“I look back at all the things that we’ve gone through,”

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said, “and I admire their resiliency

and the way they’ve grounded out.

“I think right now we’re comfortable where we are. We’ve been

back for a while. We’ve been together. It’s been a long time since

the roster’s had the adjustments. So this is who we are.”

If that’s true, the Vols are a very good team. They beat

second-ranked Kentucky 74-65 on Feb. 27, followed by a home win

over Arkansas before closing out the regular season Saturday with a

75-59 win at Mississippi State.

During the winning streak, Tennessee is shooting 50.6 percent

while holding opponents to 36.6 percent.

“Their length and their athleticism puts them in situations

where they can really guard you,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said.

“Then they’re making shots. They appear to be in a really, really

good rhythm.”

The Vols have more SEC wins in their recent run than Johnson’s

club had all season.

After starting their conference slate with 12 straight losses,

the Tigers (11-19) won two of their last four SEC games, including

a 50-48 victory over Georgia on Saturday.

But they still finished last in the SEC West, struggling to

replace 2008-09 conference player of the year Marcus Thornton. LSU

ranks at the bottom of the league in many offensive categories,

including scoring (61.9 points per game) and field goal percentage

(40.1).

The Vols, however, will be wary of LSU, which also finished last

in its division in 2007 but went on to beat then-No. 22 Tennessee

76-67 in overtime in the first round of the SEC tournament.

“We just continue to go out there and fight no matter what the

situation,” said LSU senior Tasmin Mitchell, who leads the team

with 17.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

The Tigers also played then-No. 14 Tennessee tough on Feb. 4

before falling 59-54 in Baton Rouge, and Pearl said he’s not

worried about his team looking forward to what would be a

quarterfinal matchup with Mississippi on Friday.

“We’ve just got to come out and be ready to play against those

guys,” Tennessee senior Wayne Chism said.

Tennessee is just 3-4 in the SEC tournament under Pearl,

although it reached the final last season before losing 64-61 to

Mississippi State. The Vols are looking for their first SEC title

since 1979.

They would have to win an extra game to get it done this season

because they finished third in the SEC East. The top two teams in

each division get byes to the quarterfinals

That advantage went to Ole Miss and Mississippi State – the top

two clubs in the West – even though each finished 9-7 in the SEC.

Tennessee went 11-5.