ATLANTA, Ga. - The LSU Tigers open Southeastern Conference Tournament play here Thursday at the Georgia Dome at 10 p.m. EST (9 p.m. CST) against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The game will be televised regionally on the SEC Network (WBXH, Cable 16 in Baton Rouge) with Dave Neal, Mark Gottfried and interviewer Shannon Spake on the call. Jim Hawthorne and Ricky Blanton will call the game on the affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network (WTGE New Country 100.7 FM The Tiger in Baton Rouge).
The tip time is approximate following the conclusion of the opening game of the night session between Tennessee and Arkansas which begins at 7:30 p.m. EST.
LSU's Coach Trent Johnson and players Ralston Turner and Storm Warren met with the media prior to the team's 60 minutes on the floor of the Georgia Dome. Prior to arriving at the Dome, the team conducted the first part of the workout and scouting report on Vandy on the campus of Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta.
Media members and teams arrived on Wednesday to almost the same set of conditions that they left the Georgia Dome in 2008 when a tornado as part of a large weather system interrupted the tournament on the second day night session. On 2011 press conference and practice day, heavy rains and gusty winds made walking every from team and media shuttle busses difficult for those entering the Dome.
But the tournament's return to Atlanta for the first time since 2008 comes with many questions as bracketologists have two SEC teams on the first four out and some SEC teams wondering if they do make it, will they be in the "First Four" games Tuesday and Wednesday in the NCAA Tournament.
LSU's opponent, Vanderbilt, has had a strong season and as the East 3 seed, doesn't have such a worry with an NCAA bid. Vanderbilt is 21-9 overall and 9-7 in the league. The Tigers, the sixth seed in the West, would need to win four games in four days to win the league's automatic bid after finishing with a 3-13 league mark and 11-20 overall.
LSU has lost its last three games and since the Tigers and Commodores played on Feb. 26, Vandy has lost two straight - at Kentucky (66-68) and to Florida (76-86).
In the only meeting this year between the two schools, LSU held a 43-41 halftime advantage on the Commodores after both teams shot 57 percent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. But Vanderbilt continued hot in the second half, shooting 51 percent to LSU's 25 percent and made 5-of-11 treys in each half to win going away, 90-69.
The Commodores shot 54.4 percent from the floor for the game, their highest percentage from the floor in SEC play and the first time at least four players scored 15 or more points for Vandy since 2005.
LSU's Storm Warren had a career-high 24 points, making 12-of-20 field goal attempts, while All-SEC Freshman Team member Ralston Turner had 18 points and Andre Stringer 10. LSU out rebounded Alabama, 38-37, and had a plus-5 advantage on the offensive boards.
Jeffrey Taylor scored 20 points to lead Vanderbilt while John Jenkins had 17 and Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne each had 16 points (Goulbourne had 17 rebounds). Festus Ezeli had 15.
The Tigers are expected to go with the lineup that they have used since Turner and Warren were both completely healthy with the freshman backcourt of Andre Stringer, Matt Derenbecker and Turner at the three guards and Warren and Malcolm White at forwards. Stringer is averaging 11.1 points per game, Turner a team best 12.8 overall and 11.5 in league play. White, however, has not practiced since the season-ending Auburn game because of back problems and is listed as questionable for the game and will be a game-time decision.
Tinsley, Jenkins and Taylor start at guards for Vanderbilt while Goulbourne is at forward and Ezeli at center. Jenkins, who was first-team All-SEC, leads the SEC in scoring at 19.4 points game. Tinsley leads the SEC in assists as 4.5 a game. Ezeli, who averaged 12.9 points and 6.2 rebounds, was a second team All-SEC selection along with Taylor.
LSU is 6-3 in the tournament against Vanderbilt with the Commodores last win in 1995. The teams last met in the quarterfinals of the 2006 event in Nashville, when LSU was a 92-73 winner as the West 1 seed. The last meeting in the Georgia Dome came in 2002 when LSU defeated Vanderbilt, 69-62, when LSU was a West 4 seed.
The winner of the LSU-Vanderbilt game faces West 2 Mississippi State, who had a first-round bye, in the late game on Friday night in the quarterfinals.
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An Interview with: TRENT JOHNSON STORM WARREN RALSTON TURNER
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by LSU. We'll go ahead get started with an opening statement from Coach Johnson.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, basically, it's a new season for us, and obviously
we have had our share of struggles throughout this year in terms of being able to sustain the level of consistency in our play. But we know we have a supreme challenge in front of us versus a very, very good Vanderbilt team, and one thing I like about this group is that all year long, we continue to work and continue to try to compete to the best of our ability. So we're looking forward to tomorrow.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the coach or players.
Q. Coach, if you could, just talk about tomorrow, the schedule for the team obviously having so much time to sit around and wait for the game to get here.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, it's a 10 o'clock game, so if I'm not mistaken, Storm, who is elder statesman of the team, put in a request to sleep until like 6 p.m., get up and have a pregame meal and go play. No, obviously we'll get up in the morning, have breakfast around 10, I believe our shoot-around time is around 4:00. But during the course of the day, we have study hall, academic responsibilities. But the main thing is to get off our feet this evening. We have already worked out twice. Get rested and relaxed and try to compete at a high level. So that's pretty much our schedule for tomorrow.
Q. Trent, would you elaborate a little on the "fresh start." Is that a wiping away of everything that's happened so far or how do you do that?
COACH JOHNSON: I don't know if you can ever do that. But our struggles and our youth and our inexperience throughout the course of this year is what it is. But one of the things I've always tried to do, and obviously these guys can elaborate on it more and you can hear their take on it, is to try to stay on an even keel regardless if it's non-conference or conference or post-season. And talk about playing the game the right way, talk about its competition and not looking too far down the line, and so from that stand point, yeah. I mean you have to look at it like, Hey, if you continue to play well and if you continue to win, you have a chance to advance. I've always felt this, I've always said this, this is one thing about college basketball, it's not like football or any other sport for that matter. At the end of the year, you can be 0-30, and if you have a chance to play and win, you can continue to play. So that's how we look at it. But from my standpoint, I look at it competing at a high level and always value the possession and get better as a player and so on and so forth.
Q. I know that Andre Stringer has been in some big games in high school, but how confident are you in him leading the team in this kind of situation? COACH
JOHNSON: Well, he is what we have. He's had his ups and downs. And he's been consistent at times and sometimes he's been not consistent. But sometimes too much is put on one individual's shoulders, and preferably in our sport, it's the point guard. I've told him, the thing I've been impressed the with the most is he's continued to work, he's continued to stay aggressive and look for his shot. So I'm very confident in terms of I have no choice, but also there's a reason we recruited him, there's a reason I like him as a young man and young player. But the bottom line is that he's done a good job of continuing to get out on the floor and do the best he can within his ability.
Q. Malcolm, is he okay for tomorrow?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, he hasn't practiced in two and a half days, so hopefully between now and tomorrow, he'll loosen up a little bit. It's extremely tight. He was able to shoot free throws here this past hour and a half, and hopefully he'll loosen up tomorrow.
Q. I just wonder where you see your team at now as opposed to where it was back in October when this whole thing got started.
COACH JOHNSON: That's a good question. In October, we very, very inexperienced. Going into the year we knew we were going to have to play extremely well as a unit and have all our pieces in place. And quite frankly, these two young men here, Storm and Ralston, they both were injured at the start of conference play, that took a toll on this team in general. And then when they both got back, because basketball is a game of rhythm, it took them awhile to get in their rhythm. So I think, if anything, the indication of our play the last six out of nine games is where we thought this team would be throughout the year. We haven't done a decent job, we haven't done a very good job of trying to finish games. And I say trying to finish games, so we're a better team, and obviously there's a lot of guys on this team that have got a lot of experience over the course of a year. But going into this year, there were a lot of guys coming out of high school who were stars who never played at this level and were asked to do a lot of things that they did in high school at this level of play. And the guys that were returning on this team were basically role players in the previous year and a half or two years. So we're better than we were then. Obviously, the wins and losses don't say that, but obviously I tip my hat, as hard as it is to, to some of the people that we played. And quite frankly, they have been better, and our record indicates that.
THE MODERATOR: Storm and Ralston, guys, just your general thoughts on the game heading into tomorrow. Storm?
STORM WARREN: It's just come out and play hard and leave everything on the court because at this point in the tournament either you go hard or go home. You come out with a win or you're going home. So don't hold anything back and just let it all go out on the floor. At the end day when you look at yourself in the mirror you said you did the best you can, you did all you can do.
THE MODERATOR: Ralston, same for you.
RALSTON TURNER: Tomorrow, as we know, we're playing a very good Vanderbilt team, but I think the main thing is that we're still trying to build, like we're still working hard and we're still trying to get better. So tomorrow we are going to have to come out and play hard and try to put ourselves in the best position moving forward, whether that be the next game or the next year.
Q. For both of you guys, the first game against Vanderbilt obviously went real well in the first half. I think you guys were up two going into the break and then it got away from you a little bit. Can you just talk about what changed in that game and why it went the way it did.
STORM WARREN: We had a couple of mistakes coming out and a couple of breakdowns. We were kind of a step off coming into the second half and they capitalized on those and they just held the lead that they had for the rest of the game.
RALSTON TURNER: I remember at halftime in that game, Coach Johnson came in and said defense was what was going to win it for us, and that's what lost it for us. We had some breakdowns, we didn't get back in transition, and things got a little out of hand and we weren't able to recover from that.
Q. Vanderbilt can attack any team inside with the Ezeli. They got obviously Jenkins on the perimeter. How do you go about trying to prioritize what to contain?
COACH JOHNSON: You're good, Jerry. Well, you know, bottom line is, and I said this in the year, I thought there were three teams in our league that were special and had a chance to be special, and Vanderbilt is one. I think you have to pick your poison in terms of Ezeli or are you going to try force him off his left shoulder and let them throw the ball in the post and then not cover down off of Jenkins? Now that's one. Or Taylor is so effective, he's probably one of the more underrated players in our league, let alone the country in terms of his explosiveness and ability to defend. But I think the key to their basketball team is Brad Tinsley. I think he does an exceptional job of getting the ball to the right person at the right time. I think one thing you can do with a team like ourselves is you got to mix it up with two-man, you got to mix it up with two-zone, give them different looks. And then there's going to be certain situations where we have to do a better job of scoring and getting crucial stops at key points in the game, whether it's early in the first half or late in the First half or early in the second half or late in the second half if the game's in striking distance.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
An Interview with: KEVIN STALLINGS JEFFERY TAYLOR FESTUS EZELI
THE MODERATOR: We would like to welcome Vanderbilt. We'll start with an opening statement from Coach Stallings.
COACH STALLINGS: Well, we're excited to be here. Looking forward to getting in the tournament atmosphere and tournament play. It's a lot different feeling when you're playing in a tournament, and certainly we need to experience that. We need to come and have that feeling and some of that pressure and that sort of thing. So obviously our goal is to be here this weekend, but we recognize that we had a competitive game with LSU a couple weeks ago, and so in order to be here this weekend, the first step in us doing that is to play well tomorrow night and find a way to be victorious.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take your questions.
Q. Specifically, the 3-point shot is such an important weapon. You guys have done a great job of defending the 3-point shot. Without giving away too much, is there sort of a philosophy you have on that and how y'all been able to have success shutting teams down from outside the arc this year?
COACH STALLINGS: Well, we have done a better job this year than we have done in other years. Honestly, I've always felt like defending the three was a weakness. We have done a better job of that. We have made some modifications in our coverage and philosophically, probably have moved towards the fact that we just don't want to get beat from out there. We don't want to give the other team's best shooters good looks from the 3-point line. When there was no 3-point line, you really wanted to defend the basket and you wanted to defend the lane area, and the 3-point line has changed some philosophies defensively. And so we have just tried to do a good job on the guys that are really good from out there and fortunately for most of the season, we have done that.
Q. Jeffrey, you guys, maybe two weeks ago, you were looking at a pretty high NCAA seed and you lost three out of your last four. Just wondering if you think you guys had some nagging injuries through the season and do you think that played into the way your season ended up, maybe a little fatigue as well?
JEFFERY TAYLOR: Obviously, we were a little disappointed with how we ended the season. Especially since we had that long wining streak, things were really looking up for us. But we felt like we did a really good job throughout the whole season with the injuries, just sticking together, other people stepping up and doing things that they usually don't. So I don't feel like the injuries had anything to do with it. We have more, we have a lot of capable players, so I don't feel like that was the problem.
FESTUS EZELI: The injuries? I mean, it definitely slowed us down a little bit, but when we got a hold of it and people started stepping up, like he said, it was nothing for us. We're a deep team, so that helps us out a little bit, yeah.
Q. You don't necessarily need to do well as far as NCAA tournament bid, but still what is your attitude for the team going into this week?
COACH STALLINGS: We want to play well against LSU. If we can, and we're fortunate to advance, then we want to play well against Mississippi State. To me, this has an opportunity to be four one-game ordeals, I guess. So we want to play in as many of those four as we possible can. We have not talked about winning a championship. We want to play well on Thursday night. And that's all our focus is about and all it will continue to be about. Like I said, if we're good enough to get by LSU, then we want to play well on Friday night. And fortunately these guys have done a good enough job over the course of the entire season that we're not here sweating out our NCAA tournament berth. That's good. So our focus can be on what it should be on, and that is, let's just play well.
Q. For Festus and Jeffery, how important is it for you guys to play well on how you ended the season heading into the NCAA tournament. Momentum-wise.
FESTUS EZELI: It's definitely good for confidence going into the NCAA. That's a big tournament as well, but it will be good to start it off here. The next game is always the most important one. And that's going to be good for to us start off here.
JEFFERY TAYLOR: Just like he said, to play well here and leave here with a good feeling would probably serve us well with what we have coming. So we definitely want to play well and we definitely want to leave here not feeling disappointed or feeling like we left anything out there.
Q. For the players, do you feel like this tournament is an opportunity to prove that you can put teams away when you have them down and to work on a killer instinct, if you guys are lacking that right now at this stage of the season.
JEFFERY TAYLOR: It's something that we have been struggling with throughout the season. Obviously if we get in that situation when we're down here, it's something that we need to do in order to be successful going down the line. So, yeah.
FESTUS EZELI: That's another thing we need to get better at is that right there, a killer instinct. And our philosophy through the season has been to try to get better every day. And the game is another opportunity to get better, and I feel like we just try and work on that.
Q. Could you elaborate on, you said you want your guys to experience the atmosphere and the one-game ordeals of the tournament, what do you hope they can get out of that here?
COACH STALLINGS: I think that first of all, it's interesting that there's a perception that we have not played well the last couple of weeks because we have lost three out of four. You were in Lexington the night that the losing started. Did you feel like we played poorly? No, because we didn't. And we lost, but we didn't play poorly. And then -- well, actually, that wasn't the first game. We had a very miserable 10 or 12 or 14 minutes against Tennessee, and then we got beat by the best team in the league. For the most part, so did everybody else. We didn't play very well defensively, but that had a lot more to do with them than it did with us. So we don't arrive here feeling badly about how we have played. Ironically, and I think people forget this also, our record was better in the second half of the SEC season than it was the First half. And we're disappointed that we were in a better position two weeks ago than we finished. We're certainly disappointed with that. But I look our team and I like our chances. We would like to play well and we would like to gather some momentum going into next week. And I think it will be good for these guys to feel the pressure of, if you get beat, you go home. And I think that's a good pressure to experience prior to the one that really matters, which is next week.
Q. Just curious with the quick turnaround, in the event that you win, I mean, are you doing any prep work already on Mississippi State or just waiting until after the LSU game?
COACH STALLINGS: Well, I hope that I can say this as non-offensively as possible, but that's not a question that I want to answer, because I don't care to share what goes into our preparation with the other coaches in this league, just like they don't want to share what their preparation is with me. And I don't blame them. But I can tell you that philosophically, we prepare for the people, the team we're playing, and that's our approach, is to focus on whoever it is that we're playing, and that's LSU.
Q. Coach, ideally coming into a four-game tournament, you would like to have a long bench and you have a pretty good long bench, but maybe not as much as maybe some previous years. How big a concern is that to you?
COACH STALLINGS: It's not a concern. It may become a concern if we're fortunate enough to be here to the weekend. But it's not a concern. We played nine early in the season when we had nine that were healthy and productive. Hopefully those nine, those same nine will be available to us beginning tomorrow. Whether we decide to utilize all nine or not is another story, but our hope is, is that those nine that we began the season with, albeit that they're not all at a hundred percent, they can be productive and contribute. And that will be more important if we're lucky enough to stay around here to Saturday or Sunday.
Q. Can you talk about your protocol of what you do in a tournament like this when you're playing every day, that 24 hours between games of preparing and getting guys rested and kind of who are the unsung heroes in that operation.
COACH STALLINGS: Well, I think that the trainers and my assistant coaches are the guys that do the most work. Obviously it's up to the players to convince their minds and convince their bodies that they can bounce back and play. But again, we have played in a three-game-in-three-day format already this season against extremely good competition. Therefore, we're used to at least that part of it. Again, we haven't done the fourth day, but I think that the trainers and the assistant coaches, because they do the film work and they do the scouting preps and the things like that, so I would say those two groups are the ones that they're kind of the unsung guys in the in between times, between when a game ends and the next one begins.
THE MODERATOR: All right thank you very much.