The view from the highest points of the SEC men’s basketball standings isn’t exactly picturesque these days.
By virtue of LSU’s 82-77 overtime loss to Florida Wednesday night, Tennessee again has the best vantage point. No matter, it’s still partly cloudy up there in first place by virtue of last Saturday’s rout at the hands of Kentucky. A workmanlike victory over Vanderbilt on Tuesday didn’t do enough to clear away the fallout from what transpired at Rupp Arena.
And now comes a Saturday visit to LSU to face the Tigers and a sold-out crowd at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Better to be bracing for a motivated opponent, though, than considering an injury report.
Kentucky, which is tied for second with LSU, one game behind Tennessee, likely will be without forward Reid Travis for at least two weeks after he suffered a sprained right knee against Missouri on Tuesday. The injury puts the 6-foot-8 forward’s status in doubt for the rematch with Tennessee March 2 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Wildcats coach John Calipari called Travis a “difference maker” in the 86-69 victory over the Vols. He scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots.
LSU, meanwhile, lost the advantage gained by last week’s upset of Kentucky with Tuesday’s loss to the Gators. Tigers coach Will Wade, who coached for two seasons at Chattanooga (2013-15), considered the Gators’ determined effort and said, “When our season ends, we’re going to lose to a team like this.”
During his postgame press conference, Wade mentioned teams like Florida and Missouri – gritty, defensive-minded squads – and said, “We just don’t have some of that stuff to beat some of these teams. We’re either going to develop that over the next couple weeks or this is how it’s going to end.”
The Vols pride themselves on being tough and physical. The qualities are a by-product of their work habits and their experience and they were instrumental to a 19-game winning streak and being ranked No. 1 nationally for four consecutive weeks.
But Kentucky was tougher and more physical in beating the Vols last week, resulting in some soul searching and renewal of their resolve.
The first response was strong defensively. In beating the Commodores 58-46, UT held the Commodores to 32.1 percent shooting from the floor and their lowest point total of the season.
Conversely, Tennessee’s 41.1 percent shooting was a continuation of shooting woes against Kentucky. In its past two games, UT is shooting 40.9 percent from the floor, noticeably less than its 50.7 average percentage for the season.
In Tuesday’s case, the Vols might have been overcompensating for the insufficient ball movement against Kentucky.
“Sometimes you go through shooting lows, but I don’t think the shooting part had anything to do with it,” UT coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought we were tentative because of some of the things that we wanted to correct we overdid tonight, making the extra pass, doing some things. You can’t hesitate.”
During his press conference on Monday, Barnes said forward Kyle Alexander “hasn’t been a factor in three weeks.” The 6-11 senior forward logged 19 minutes against Vanderbilt, scoring three points and grabbing three rebounds. Yet Barnes praised his demeanor and aggressiveness and said, “I don’t think what he did will show up on the stat sheet.”
Maybe so, but a few more rebounds better show up on Alexander’s stat line against LSU. Rebounding likely will be a factor in Saturday’s outcome, especially since the Tigers feast on offensive rebounds.