KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team thinks it has patched up its perimeter defense problems.
Marcus Thornton will be the judge of that.
LSU’s scorching hot senior will take aim at the Volunteers’ defense tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena, where several opposing shooting guards have feasted this season.
“I’ve been studying LSU pretty closely, and (Thornton) would be somebody that you would need to cover and identify like Jodie Meeks,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said.
The Vols couldn’t corral Meeks, whose program-record 54 points led Kentucky to a victory in Knoxville two weeks ago. They hope to have better success against the SEC’s other 6-foot-4 star guard.
LSU spreads the wealth more than Kentucky, but Thornton still ranks fourth in the league with 18.9 points per game. He was named conference player of the week Monday after scoring 31 and 30 points against Mississippi State and Xavier.
“He’s a great guard,” UT redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum said of Thornton. “We’re going to keep watching tape and get to know his tendencies and play him before the catch, and then just play him tough and aggressively.
“That’s one area Meeks really hurt us, before the catch.”
UT’s perimeter defense has stiffened in the three games since UK.
The Vols held Memphis to 19-for-56 (33.9 percent) shooting Saturday. They were similarly solid at Vanderbilt, limiting the Commodores to 20-for-58 (34.5 percent).
In the first game after the Meeks onslaught, South Carolina needed a hot streak in the final minutes to reach 40 percent shooting against UT.
“The Jodie Meeks situation opened our eyes up a lot, in terms of playing defense,” Tatum said. “We don’t want that feeling ever again.”
Added junior forward Tyler Smith: “If 54 points doesn’t embarrass you, what will?”
Tonight will probably be a bigger test, though. As solid as Memphis seems, it lacks proficient perimeter shooting. And this season certainly hasn’t featured a typical Kevin Stallings offense at Vanderbilt.
LSU, meanwhile, leads the SEC at 38.6 percent shooting from behind the arc.
“The difference (between Meeks and Thornton) I would say that jumps out at me is LSU’s got more weapons than Kentucky,” Pearl said. “Kentucky has got two tremendous weapons offensively in Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, and then whatever comes anybody else’s way comes their way, and they take whatever’s left. LSU will do more for Tasmin Mitchell, and then there’s some other guys that are factors.
“And yet Marcus Thornton is completely capable of going off, and he has. So I would say that he’ll probably receive the same level of attention, even though LSU’s got more weapons. Would I anticipate him taking 22 shots? I don’t know that I would.”
LSU has compiled a solid record against a favorable schedule — 179th out of 343 NCAA Division I programs, according to collegerpi.com — but the Tigers hung with 10th-ranked Xavier in an 80-70 loss Saturday night.
Before that, LSU cruised to double-digit victories over SEC foes South Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The Tigers have a roster full of defensively solid athletes recruited by John Brady, and his replacement — first-year coach Trent Johnson — has enjoyed more offensive success.
LSU also has experience. Several of its seniors played prominent roles on the Final Four team three seasons ago.
“They make your inside points in the paint even more challenging because of how long they are and how physical they are, and obviously points in the paint are the only points that we’re getting,” Pearl said. “We’ll have to figure out a way to get some more points from the perimeter to open things up on the inside.”
And the Vols must limit Thornton on the other end.