Top ESPN bracketologist moves LSU basketball up to No. 7 seed after Tigers beat Texas A&M _lowres

LSU forward Ben Simmons, second from left, celebrates with fans in the student section after their 76-71 win over Texas A&M in an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

With six games to go in the regular season, the LSU Tigers have gone from pre-conference disappointment to Southeastern Conference title contender, tied for first with Kentucky.

Actually the Tigers (16-9, 9-3) hold the tiebreaker on the Wildcats (19-6, 9-3) thanks to LSU’s 85-67 win over UK on Jan. 5. LSU and Kentucky will meet in the season finale March 5 in Lexington, Kentucky, a game with big championship overtones.

A lot of folks outside the program are focused on LSU’s hopes for the NCAA tournament, perhaps not taking the Tigers’ candidacy to be SEC champs seriously.

Inside the program, the Tigers’ goal is very much on the regular-season chase.

“I want a ring,” freshman star Ben Simmons said. “That’s the goal. I got one in high school. I want one in college. To be able to do that would be huge.”

A tough three-week test lies between LSU and that objective. A look at the Tigers’ remaining six opponents:

ALABAMA

Record: 15-9, 6-6

RPI: 37 (LSU’s is 72)

Last meeting: LSU 72, Alabama 70 (Jan. 23 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

Next game: Wednesday at LSU (8 p.m., SEC Network)

ESPN Bracketology: First four out (LSU No. 7 seed in the South regional)

Trending: Bama has won four straight, including a 61-55 win Saturday at Florida that rekindled the Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes. Bama has an SEC-best four top-25 wins this season.

Outlook: This promises to be a grinder. Alabama is last in the SEC in scoring with 67.5 points per game (LSU is first at 81.1) but the Tide is top five in the SEC in scoring defense, field-goal defense and blocked shots.

Prediction: LSU 70, Bama 63

AT TENNESSEE

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU

Record: 12-13, 5-7

RPI: 129

Last meeting: First this season

Next game: 6 p.m. Thursday at Kentucky, ESPN2

ESPN Bracketology: N/A

Trending: The Volunteers have been hard to figure. Last week, they crushed Auburn at home 71-45 but lost 75-64 at hapless Missouri. Senior guard Kevin Punter has been one of the SEC’s best and most-consistent scorers, ranked No. 2 in the SEC and 10th nationally with 22.3 points per game. The Vols are poor rebounders, 12th in the SEC (minus-2.4).

Outlook: The Vols are tough at home, 11-2 with losses to Texas A&M and Vandy, while beating Kentucky and South Carolina. Simmons and Victor need to avoid foul trouble and win the battle in the paint.

Prediction: LSU 72, Tennessee 69

AT ARKANSAS

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 23, ESPN/ESPNU/SEC)

Record: 12-13, 5-7

RPI: 118

Last meeting: LSU 76, Arkansas 74 (Jan. 16 in Baton Rouge)

Next game: 6 p.m. Wednesday vs. Auburn, SEC Network

ESPN Bracketology: N/A

Trending: The Razorbacks have dropped three of four, all the losses coming on the road. But Arkansas has been tough at home in SEC play, losing only to Kentucky (80-66). The Hogs have lost seven times by four points or less or in overtime.

Outlook: Arkansas has been up and down but has had balanced scoring with Anthlon Bell (16.2 ppg), Moses Kingsley (16.0) and Dusty Hannahs (15.8) to rank just behind LSU in the SEC in offense (79.5 ppg). The Razorbacks shoot free throws at a strong clip (71.0).

Prediction: Arkansas 80, LSU 75

FLORIDA

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, ESPN/ESPN2)

Record: 16-9, 7-5

RPI: 31

Last meeting: Florida 68, LSU 62 (Jan. 9 in Gainesville)

Next game: 8 p.m. Tuesday at Georgia, ESPN

ESPN Bracketology: No. 9 seed in the South regional

Trending: The Gators rank 10th in the SEC in scoring and shooting and 13th in free throws, issues that showed in Saturday’s loss to Alabama. Yet the Gators beat top-10 foe West Virginia and have scored 80-plus points in five SEC games.

Outlook: The Gators are 1-4 on the SEC road and go to South Carolina and play Vandy before visiting LSU. Florida could be desperate for a win by this one.

Prediction: LSU 77, Florida 65

MISSOURI

When: 8 p.m. March 1, SEC Network

Record: 9-16, 2-10

RPI: 197

Last meeting: First meeting this season

Next game: 6 p.m. Tuesday vs. South Carolina, SEC Network

ESPN Bracketology: N/A

Trending: Saturday’s upset of Tennessee snapped Mizzou’s nine-game losing streak. Otherwise, it’s been a dumpster fire of a season, complete with the admission of major NCAA violations under former coach Frank Haith.

Outlook: It would help LSU’s cause if this one were on the road and it got Tennessee at home, but that’s not how the schedule played out. Expect Simmons, and LSU radio announcer Jim Hawthorne, to go out with one last big, splashy home win.

Prediction: LSU 83, Missouri 60

KENTUCKY

When: 1 p.m. March 5, CBS

Record: 19-6, 9-3

RPI: 13

Last meeting: LSU 85, Kentucky 67 (Jan. 5 in Baton Rouge)

Next game: 6 p.m. Thursday vs. Tennessee, ESPN

ESPN Bracketology: No. 4 seed in the East regional

Trending: UK has won three straight lopsided SEC games, including an 89-62 rout Saturday at South Carolina. This isn’t a vintage UK squad, but point guard Tyler Ulis has held them together and will challenge Simmons for SEC player of the year honors.

Outlook: UK has trips to A&M, Vandy and Florida sandwiched around a home game with Alabama, but it would be unwise to expect the Cats will drop more than one game before hosting LSU.

Prediction: Kentucky 84, LSU 77 (Tigers finish 20-11, 13-5 SEC)