At the start of the season, the LSU men’s basketball team’s season-ending game with Arkansas in Fayetteville looked like it would be a big one for both squads.
It still is for one of them when it comes to seeding for the Southeastern Conference tournament — and beyond.
After the Tigers’ unexpected loss to Tennessee at home Wednesday, Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchup with No. 18 Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena suddenly is bigger for LSU.
LSU (21-9, 10-7) will be jockeying for position in the SEC tournament, which begins Wednesday, when the Tigers try to finish the regular season on a strong note against Arkansas (24-6, 13-4).
Depending on the outcome of four games Saturday, LSU can secure the fourth, fifth or sixth seed for the conference tournament.
More importantly, a road win against a team with an RPI of 16 that has already clinched the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament could go a long way to getting the Tigers in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
On the other hand, a loss to Arkansas likely would pit LSU against one of the four teams at the bottom of the league Thursday, which probably would determine the Tigers’ NCAA fate, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Friday.
He said LSU and Texas A&M likely will be bubble teams for the SEC, but he predicted both will get in and give the SEC six teams in the NCAA field — if they don’t stumble next week.
“LSU has enough good wins; they can’t take another bad loss,” Lunardi said. “With A&M, it’s the other way around; they beat LSU twice. Ultimately, I think both will still make it, but they both have ample opportunity to screw it up.”
That leaves LSU with a good opportunity to make its case Saturday.
That means the Tigers have to shrug off a 78-63 loss to a hot-shooting Tennessee team Wednesday and get its act together against the Hogs.
The good news is that LSU has lost back-to-back games only once all season, bouncing back from losses with wins against Georgia, Florida (twice), Alabama and Tennessee. LSU also has been good on the road. After going 2-7 in the conference a year ago, they’re 5-3 with blowout wins of 18, 18 and 23 points.
The loss to Tennessee was an emotional one for LSU, which guard Keith Hornsby said could become another wake-up call for the team.
“We’ve responded well to previous setbacks to come back strong and encourage each other about the next opponent,” said Hornsby, who had a career-high 25 points in the loss to the Vols. “That just so happens to be Arkansas, so we’ll be excited to play that game.”
That’s a good sign, coach Johnny Jones said.
“When you care enough about it, a lot of times you have the ability to dig deeper, play harder and be stronger because you do care,” he said. “It’s good to have that. I think it could certainly rub off because you feel that way. You understand how that feeling is and you understand the feeling of success.”
To have success against a solid Arkansas team, LSU will have to be at its best on offense and defense.
The Razorbacks lead the SEC in scoring at 79.1 points per game behind 6-foot-11 forward Bobby Portis (17.7) and 6-6 guard Michael Qualls (15.3), and defensively they like to apply full-court pressure most of the game.
LSU handled West Virginia’s full-court press on the road in a 74-73 upset in December and will try to call on that success against Arkansas to spring an upset.
“We still have a lot of confidence as a team,” Tigers guard Tim Quarterman said. “We just have to go up there and play together. We have to play as a team for 40 minutes and leave it out on the floor.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.