NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With its NCAA tournament hopes on the line, the LSU basketball team finds itself in the same position it was in a year ago for its Southeastern Conference tournament opener Friday.
Last year, a well-rested and fourth-seeded LSU team began the tournament in the quarterfinals against 13th-seeded Auburn, which had to win twice in 24 hours just to get to that matchup before stunning LSU in overtime.
This time, No. 4 seed LSU will take on 12th-seeded Tennessee in the quarterfinals about 2:30 p.m. Friday in Bridgestone Arena.
Tennessee, which defeated LSU 81-65 on Feb. 20 in Knoxville, Tennessee, clubbed Auburn by 38 points on Wednesday night before advancing with a 67-65 upset of No. 5 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday afternoon.
The opponent matters little at this point for LSU (18-13, 11-7 SEC). The Tigers likely have to win three games in as many days and claim the SEC tournament title to reach the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year.
It doesn’t take a bracketologist to figure out that LSU, which had an RPI of 93 on Thursday after losing four of its last six games, has to make a serious run in the next three days — starting with the rematch against Tennessee (15-18, 8-12).
“I honestly don’t know,” LSU guard Antonio Blakeney said when asked if the Tigers had to win out. “I’m not like (ESPN’s) Joe Lunardi or any of those guys. I don’t know.”
The fact remains LSU has some work to do even though it finished in a three-way tie for third place with South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the regular-season race — two games behind co-champions Texas A&M and Kentucky.
While he knows his team likely must win three games, LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons said the Tigers have some hope knowing they defeated 10 of the other 12 teams that started the tournament.
“Yeah, we beat Kentucky and we beat Vanderbilt. … We beat teams like that, we beat Texas A&M,” Simmons said. “We have played everybody and beat them, so we’re going into the tournament confident. We know we can win.”
In other words, he and his teammates are looking at it as a brand-new season.
“Yes, it’s a new opportunity for us to really just stop talking and play and get it done.”
Still, Tennessee is one of the two teams LSU didn’t beat in the regular season. The Vols jumped on the Tigers early that day in Knoxville and never took their foot off the gas pedal in rolling to the easy victory.
Late in the first half of that game, LSU guard Keith Hornsby, one of the team’s top leaders, aggravated a sports hernia injury that forced him to miss the first seven games of the season.
LSU coach Johnny Jones announced Thursday that Hornsby, who missed the final four games of the regular season, had another surgery Tuesday and is out for the season.
“We certainly have to be playing at another level, and that’s going to be a key for us,” Jones said Thursday. “Anytime you get to the conference tournament, everybody is certainly playing at another level. We have to make sure that we raise our level of play as well.”
LSU can take something from the loss to Auburn here last season as well as Tennessee’s two wins so far.
After ripping the Tigers, the Vols dropped four in a row and limped into the tournament as the No. 12 seed — then crushed Auburn and held off Vanderbilt when a last-second, game-tying layup came just after the final horn.
“Tennessee’s a very tough basketball team,” Jones said after UT survived. “They’re very talented and played very well against us up there. They played excellent today. … They played really well the last two days, and beat a very good Vandy team.”
Forward Craig Victor said the opponent was irrelevant although they won’t move the RPI meter with a win over Tennessee like the Tigers would by beating Vanderbilt.
The mission is to win three games, he said.
“We can’t look forward, we have to take care of whatever is ahead of us on Friday,” he said. “But the mindset has to be to win three games.”
That, Simmons said, would wipe out a lot of disappointment.
“We can win this tournament,” he said, “so that’s our goal.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.