APTOPIX LSU Mississippi Basketball

LSU's Emmitt Williams (24) points after the team's NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. LSU won 83-69. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

Will Wade wanted to sign Jordan Bone. He wanted to sign him really bad.

“We were a finalist for him at VCU,” the LSU coach said. “I did an in-home visit with him.”

Bone eventually signed with Tennessee, but it was hardly a blip on the basketball recruiting radar. A three-star prospect who signed with a down-and-out Southeastern Conference program over a mid-major like VCU? From an LSU perspective, so what?

It matters to Wade now. Though he has put VCU in his rear-view mirror, the second-year LSU coach probably still wishes he had won that recruiting battle for the sake of the battle looming Saturday morning for his No. 13-ranked Tigers with the No. 5 Volunteers. It would be helpful if Bone, who has blossomed into one of the premier point guards in the Southeastern Conference, was occupying a spot on that VCU roster.

“He’s just an ultimate competitor,” Wade said, “and he’s really, really improved.”

It is a fascinating clash of programs who square off in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and not just because first place in the SEC is at stake and Dick Vitale, the eternal Dickie V, will be courtside on the call.

To borrow a Vitaleism, LSU’s roster is loaded with “Diaper Dandies.” Five-star freshmen like forwards Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams, and four-star guard Javonte Smart and forward Darius Days.

In his quest to build LSU into a contender, Wade went for the quick fix. Accumulate as much talent as you can as fast as you can and hope you can mold it into a cohesive whole. Having four-star Tremont Waters running the point — not a Diaper Dandy, but a Super Sophomore — puts a talented bow on the whole LSU roster. It has made the Tigers a contender for the SEC title and, Wednesday’s loss to Florida aside, still a trendy Final Four pick.

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But there is more than one path to victory, like coaches who are equal devotees of zone and man-to-man defense. LSU is one, and Tennessee is another.

The Volunteers’ recruiting classes the past four years pale in comparison to LSU. We submit Exhibit A, the 247Sports.com class rankings since 2015:

• 2015: LSU 10th (Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson), Tennessee 60th

• 2016: LSU 51st (Skylar Mays), Tennessee 49th

• 2017: LSU 17th (Waters), Tennessee 54th

• 2018: LSU 4th, Tennessee 115th

It hardly seems like a fair fight on paper. But here the Volunteers are, 24-2 and 12-1 in the SEC, still steaming toward an SEC championship and a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.

The Vols have ridden the other side of the curve to prosperity. While LSU has a bunch of talented young colts, the Vols have wise veterans, though mostly a middling list according to the recruiting services at the time.

Junior forward Grant Williams, a strong possibility to repeat as SEC player of the year? He was a three-star recruit in 2016, ranked 191st nationally. Senior forward Admiral Schofield? He was a three star ranked 251st in 2015.

The only four stars on the Tennessee roster — freshman D.J. Burns and sophomore Yves Pons — aren’t playing. Burns is redshirting and Pons is shelved because of an injury.

But here the Vols are, winning and winning and winning, their only losses to a pair of blue-blood basketball programs, Kansas and Kentucky.

“We know we can play with anybody,” Tennessee junior guard Jordan Bowden (another three star) told The Associated Press earlier this month. “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work.”

Bowden would get an amen from Wade in the wake of LSU’s 82-77 overtime loss Wednesday to outmanned-but-scrappy Florida.

“Tennessee is so mature,” Wade said. “They’re so good. They don’t lose any games they’re not supposed to lose. They just blow people’s doors off, the teams they’re supposed to beat, they handle their business. There’s no overtimes, nothing too crazy most of the time. Nine times out of 10, they handle their business. They’ll show up in the big games and see what happens.

“That’s when you’ve got an elite, elite program and a top-five or 10 team. And that’s what they have. We don’t have that. We have a team that’s trying to get there, but a team that gets excited for big games and a team that doesn’t have any consistency when we play teams that we should be able to beat.”

It has been said before in this space what a big, Mondo Duplantis pole vault LSU is trying to make. Two years ago the Tigers were 10-21. Last year, LSU was 18-15 and reached the second round of the NIT while Tennessee went 26-9 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers have made a mighty impressive climb to a dizzying height, with a chance by day’s end to be tied for first in the SEC with four games to go. But occasionally, as shown by the Florida game, the young Tigers are prone to nosebleeds.

Wade admitted his team is more stoked for this game than it was for Florida. He said they are honed to a sharper edge for this one.

“Hopefully that will carry over to the court,” Wade said.

If not, the Volunteers are experienced and savvy enough to teach a talented young team another hard lesson.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​