After learning its lessons the hard way at times, the LSU men’s basketball team can still get where it wants to get in the final week of the regular season.
That would be finishing among the top four teams in the Southeastern Conference standings, which would give the Tigers a double-bye and a pass to the quarterfinals of the league tournament that begins a week from Wednesday night.
Despite three losses this season to teams languishing in the bottom half of the league standings, the only things the Tigers can focus on are the next two games against Tennessee and Arkansas.
LSU shouldn’t need a lot of motivation to get ready for Wednesday’s 6 p.m. meeting with Tennessee in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, or Saturday’s regular-season finale at Arkansas.
That’s because LSU (21-8, 10-6 SEC) is playing at a high level with three wins in a row and now has its eyes squarely on the prize heading into the big home finale with Tennessee (14-14, 6-10).
With its third consecutive victory Saturday, a 10-point decision over Ole Miss, LSU forged a three-way tie for fourth place with Ole Miss and Georgia.
The Tigers own the tie-breaker if they wind up tied with either or both teams, making the next two games all the more important for seeding purposes.
“I think this team now has a different mindset,” said guard Tim Quarterman, who earned SEC Player of the Week honors after recording LSU’s first triple-double in 23 years against Ole Miss. “Everybody is growing up around this time of the year, and they all understand the significance of these last couple of games.
“Everybody knows where we’re trying to go, so it’s important that we just get these wins,” he added. “Coach (Johnny Jones) has been on us a lot in practice, so there’s no playing around and stuff like that in drills. We’re focused.”
LSU has certainly played that way in recent wins over Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss, but it will be extra important because they’ll be out to complete a season sweep of Tennessee after blowing the Vols out 73-55 in Knoxville on Feb. 14.
Knowing what’s ahead of them, guard Keith Hornsby said, makes it easier to remain focused on the task at hand.
“It makes it easy for us to be motivated,” said Hornsby, who has scored in double digits in 12 consecutive games to help his team to an 8-4 record in that stretch. “We’ve experienced some success, and that’s the motivator right now. The thing is we have to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
That, he said, is helping the Tigers peak at the right time.
“Everybody is kind of fitting into their role playing well, and we feel like we’ve been playing great as a team,” Hornsby said. “We’re cracking down defensively, and I think that’s really important right now.”
What’s really important is not taking a step back like the Tigers did in falling to Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State — three teams that have combined for just 11 league wins.
Making sure of that against a Tennessee team that’s struggled in going 2-9 after a 4-1 start in SEC play is certainly on Jones’ mind. The Vols have dropped four games in a row since that setback to the Tigers.
“They’ve had some difficult games of late,” Jones said of Tennessee, which is coached by former LSU assistant Donnie Tyndall. “We definitely can’t look at their record and feel like it is a game we just have to show up for.
“We’ve been through those this year, and we know the outcome and how things have happened. We certainly have to be good Wednesday.”
Jones is thinking Tennessee will have some motivation of its own after LSU blew them out rather quickly in their earlier meeting.
The Tigers jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, increased it to 47-20 at halftime, and cruised to the easy win even though the Vols made a little bit of a run in the second half.
“We shot the ball extremely well at Tennessee and had a pretty good cushion there for most of the game,” Jones said. “Knowing that going back the second time around, it is going to be tough. We just have to be mindful of the type of start we have to get off to against a team of that caliber.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.