LSU came into its game against Tennessee needing a road win to buoy its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Simply, the Tigers had to have it.
The last thing their resume needed was another bad loss to a sub-top-100 team. Plus, word came out pre-game that Kevin Punter — Tennessee’s best player and arguably the best scorer in the SEC — would miss the game.
Basically, everything was setting up for them to take care of business and move forward to their next game on the road to rebuilding their stock.
Then the game started.
Johnny Jones’ group gave its most listless, lifeless performance of the season on Saturday, falling embarassingly to an undersized, undermanned Tennessee team 81-65. The Volunteers’ Armani Moore was the key, as his energy and toughness dominated the game from the tip. The 6-foot-4 power forward had 17 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks, but more than that he lifted the entire team with his effort level.
His continued energy also made it all the more apparent that we were watching just a thorough dud of a performance from the Tigers, who started the game without Ben Simmons in the lineup.
ESPN reported during the game that they caught up with Jones, who said Simmons’ ousting from the starting lineup was due to an academic-related issue — ironic, given his status as a clear one-and-done lottery pick who is mostly wasting his time in class over the next month. The presumptive top-two pick entered the game at the 15-minute mark and never left, but it appeared that the message Jones tried to send didn’t exactly hit the intended mark.
The 6-9 forward was sluggish all day. His 21-point, nine-rebound night looks good on paper, but his overall performance was thoroughly lacking. He was careless with the ball in turning it over eight times. His defensive performance was mostly inattentive, as he failed to close out on multiple 3-point shooters in rotation and mostly was ineffective in help situations.
Whether or not his team fed off of that is unable to be determined, but the rest of the Tigers weren’t much better. The team seemed to have quit midway through the second half outside of Antonio Blakeney, whose effort was the only thing that kept them in shouting distance.
Basically, in the biggest moment of their season, with their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes hanging in the balance, the Tigers rolled over on the road against a team that was less talented than they were, and that they out-sized by an average of two inches all over the floor. It was an irreparable letdown performance that now will have significant repurcussions on the rest of their season.
Coming into the today, the Tigers were sitting at No. 81 in the RPI with a losing record against teams currently ranked in the top-150. That ranking is surely going to plummet following this loss to the No. 125 Volunteers, and it sets up a pretty difficult equation for them.
No team as low as the Tigers in the RPI has received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, and that was before this game started. They’re going to have a pretty significant hill to climb following this loss just to get back to that level at this point, and then yet another one to climb to get back on the right side of the bubble after that.
Indeed, the Tigers at-large hopes are on life support.
And given what we saw today, they have no one to blame for that but themselves.