LSU's easier schedule gives it advantage over Vols and 'Cats for 1st SEC title since '09

Feb 12, 2019; Lexington, KY, USA; LSU Tigers guard Tremont Waters (3) celebrates with teammates after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

BATON ROUGE — The majority of the college basketball world may not realize it just yet, but No. 15 LSU is the favorite to win its first Southeastern Conference championship in 10 years next month.

The Tigers (21-4, 11-1 SEC), who enjoyed the largest jump in both polls Monday from No. 21 to No. 15 by USA TODAY and from 19 to 13 by the Associated Press, have two critical factors in their favor over fellow contenders No. 5 Tennessee (23-2, 11-1 SEC) and No. 4 Kentucky (21-4, 10-2 SEC) with six games to play in the regular season.

MORE: LSU holds on to beat Georgia

No. 1, LSU has four home games remaining, while Kentucky and Tennessee have three.

No. 2, the Tigers' schedule is easier with five games against teams with .500 or worse SEC records, including last place Vanderbilt at 9-16 and 0-12 and 12th place Texas A&M at 10-14 and 3-9.

The only team LSU has left with a winning record at the moment in the SEC is Tennessee, which will be at LSU at 11 a.m. Saturday for an ESPN game that has been sold out for weeks. Florida (14-11, 6-6) will be at LSU at 6 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2.

OPINION: LSU pulls out one of program's greatest victories at Kentucky

After Tennessee, LSU hosts the Aggies on Tuesday, Feb. 26, then plays at Alabama (15-10, 6-6) and at Florida before hosting Vanderbilt on Saturday, March 9 in the finale.  

Tennessee gets to play at struggling Vanderbilt at 6 p.m. Tuesday, then plays three straight opponents in the upper third of the league — at LSU, at Ole Miss (18-7, 8-4) and Kentucky at home — before closing out against Mississippi State (18-7, 6-6) and at Auburn (17-8, 6-6).

Kentucky has four games against .500 or worse SEC teams — at Missouri (12-12, 3-9) at 8 p.m. Tuesday, then Auburn (17-8, 6-6) and Arkansas (14-11, 5-7) before its finale against Florida. The Wildcats, though, play two of their last three games on the road against top third SEC teams — at Tennessee on March 2 and at Ole Miss on March 5.

LSU coach Will Wade talks with players, including guards Marlon Taylor (14) and Tremont Waters (3), during Saturday's game against Arkansas in Baton Rouge.

MORE: LSU levitating post Kentucky

Kentucky coach John Calipari, who lost to No. 21 LSU, 73-71, last Tuesday but beat No. 1 Tennessee, 86-69, on Saturday, does not look as closely at records, though. 

"Everybody you play has a chance to win, I don't care what the match-up is," he said Monday on the SEC teleconference. "You're not walking in thinking, 'We can get this one.'"

LSU coach Will Wade is fighting that and history in a way. The Tigers last won the SEC title in 2009 and finished dead last or tied for that three times since at 2-14 in 2009-10, 3-13 in 2010-11 and 2-16 in 2016-17. There were four other finishes over that span of sixth or worse, including last year in Wade's first season at 8-10 for ninth.

Tennessee, on the other hand, won the SEC last year with Auburn and in 2008, and Kentucky has won it five times since 2010 and 49 times overall.

"I told our guys coming into the season, we're not a team that's going to get the benefit of the doubt because we haven't been in the mix very much here at LSU lately," Wade said Monday. "And people just don't know about us."

LSU, despite one of the highest ranked recruiting classes in the nation joining the program this season, was picked to finish sixth in the league at the SEC Media Days last fall with Kentucky and Tennessee at No. 1 and 2.

"They've earned that with how consistent they've been — Tennessee over the last couple of years and Kentucky over the last 50 years," Wade said. "We haven't won a regular season title since 2009, and we've got 10 regular season titles in our history. So it's just a little bit different. We've got to work extremely hard to earn the right to be mentioned in the same conversation with those guys."

LSU is not only getting in that conversation lately. It moved into a first place tie with Tennessee at 11-1 Saturday night with Kentucky's win over the Volunteers.

"We really haven't talked about it that much," Wade said of a SEC title. "We've talked about just giving championship level effort, championship level habits. We've talked more about ingredients that go into what would become winning the SEC. But our guys certainly are aware of things and where things stand."

Yes, they all were watching the Kentucky-Tennessee game Saturday on their way home from LSU's 83-79 win at Georgia.

"Everybody who was walking past me on the bus to the airport had their phone on the game," Wade said. "They were watching that. But we don't necessarily focus on the outcome as much as we focus on what goes into making a good outcome and the process that's based on. So we spend a lot more time talking about what we need to do and the business we need to handle to put ourselves in position over these next six games."

Wade is also aware of what an SEC title could mean beyond seeding for the NCAA Tournament, which is something LSU has not advanced in since 2009 as well and has had just one appearance in since 2009 in 2015.

"Certainly, I think it would mean a lot to our players. It would mean a lot to our fans, I know that," Wade said. "And it would mean a ton to our state, if we were able to close it out. But we've got a long way to go — a long three weeks before that."