The SEC race is officially a three-team toss-up -- with all teams now rating as viable Final Four contenders.
LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky all sit tied atop the conference thanks to he No. 13 Tigers' rowdy 82-80 home overtime win against the No. 5 Volunteers on Saturday. The Tigers, Vols and the Wildcats, who trounced Auburn 80-53 Saturday, are all 12-2 in the SEC.
But check this: It's LSU which is now in prime position to finish atop the SEC standings for the first time since 2008-09. Most importantly, the Tigers' remaining schedule favors them vs. what Kentucky and Tennessee have left. LSU's final five league games come against teams with .500-or-worse SEC records, including last-place Vanderbilt and 12th-place Texas A&M.
Meanwhile, Kentucky and Tennessee's remaining slates rate much tougher, including the fact they face each other next Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee.
On Saturday, LSU played arguably its most memorable -- if not frustrating and erratic and most surprising -- game of the season. Less than an hour before tip, news came out that LSU's best player, sophomore point guard Tremont Waters, would not play due to illness.
Asking LSU to win against a top-five team without its starting point guard was asking a lot. Then consider that freshman power forward Naz Reid, who's second on the team in scoring, had the worst game of his college career. He finished with one point.
And yet, the Tigers (22-5) still won. It won because Waters' replacement at point guard, freshman Javonte Smart, was magnificent. Smart had a career-high 29 points in addition to five rebounds, five assists and three steals. It was clearly an emotionally charged performance for him -- and his teammates, and it was Smart's final two foul shots that clinched the game.
Here's how team narratives can change. Tennessee star Grant Williams was largely good, and downright vital at points, in keeping UT close and having a Vols win within reach in regulation and the extra session. He had a beautiful/vintage spin move to his left in which he was fouled and converted the and-one to give UT an 80-78 lead with 18.5 seconds left in overtime.
After a layup by LSU's Kavel Bigby-Williams tied the game at 80 with six seconds remaining, it looked like the Tigers and Vols were headed to a second overtime. (There were also numerous stalls due to officiating reviews that wound up extending the game in real time by, minimally, 15 minutes.)
Back to Williams. On the penultimate play of the game, the SEC Player of the Year candidate found himself in a tight spot in the flow of the action. He unquestionably committed a foul on Smart -- more than 70 feet from LSU's basket -- as he was reaching for a loose-ball rebound. That put Smart on the line. The game was effectively clinched there, though Williams got a great look with less than a second remaining that would have tied the game yet again.
For LSU, its sixth overtime game of the season. It's 4-2 in those outcomes. And for 24-3 Tennessee, Admiral Schofield's 27-point, nine-rebound effort goes to waste. Schofield played one of his strongest games of this his final season in college basketball. A wild SEC affair that, though ragged and jagged due to all the reviews, showed that the top of the league is as strong as it's been in years.
LSU's somewhat-charmed regular season run continues; earlier this week, Wayde Sims, who was set to start his junior season with LSU, was murdered in the preseason -- only hours before the team's first scheduled practice was to begin..
Skylar Mays, Sims' best friend since childhood, is a starter on this Tigers team. He played all 45 minutes on Saturday and finished with 23 points. It almost certainly must have been an emotional and joyous celebration in the locker room afterward for LSU, particularly since the team has kept Sims' locker as it was on the eve of the start of practice.
The win here was huge for LSU, no doubt, but also has the smell of randomness to it. That Williams foul was bad luck off a weird bounce. Had the game gone to a second overtime and Tennessee won, there would be less speculation about UT'S long-term viability to win the national title. The Vols have now lost on the road in consecutive Saturdays to the two other best teams in the league. Does losing those games eliminate Tennessee from national title consideration? It shouldn't. Most teams in college basketball would have lost those games, too.
If anything, Saturday should vault LSU's national profile. This is a team in the midst of one of its best seasons in the past two decades. The win on Saturday wasn't pretty, but for LSU, very little about this successful run has been pretty. The wins keep stacking up, and now a lot more people will be paying attention to the Tigers and their painful backstory that's brought a bittersweet element to their season.