LEXINGTON, Ky. — So, which desire wins out?
Is it No. 18 Kentucky’s lust for revenge against LSU, which knocked the Wildcats on their rump and led wire-to-wire in an 87-82 victory 25 days ago?
Or is it the Tigers quiet sense of desperation for a road victory to end a five-game slide away their home building, a win that might also breath whatever faint life still resides in NCAA tournament hopes?
Last season, this trip to Rupp Arena was simply about the Tigers, in their first year of a renovation job under Johnny Jones, swiping a win for their confidence.
Now, there’s edge that seems to chafe both sides.
For Kentucky, it’s about pride. On an icy night in Red Stick, UK was simply outplayed from the tip and fell into a 22-6 hole seven minutes in.
“We took them lightly,” Kentucky guard James Young said this week. “We’re going to give them a little payback.”
And LSU seems cognizant that Kentucky’s pride has a couple of welts that need soothing — and some seething they’d like take out in front 23,500-plus members of Big Blue Nation clamoring for their young ‘Cats to take their own set of claws out early.
“It’s a totally different ballgame,” said guard Anthony Hickey, a Kentucky native who covets a win of his own inside Rupp. “They’re going to come out with a lot of intensity and we have to handle that.”
But to parse the loquacious John Calipari, UK’s corrections from the first game to Saturday reside more between their ears and in the deep recesses of the psyche than they do from positioning on the floor, defensive rotations and attacking LSU’s zone.
“They out-rebounded us, they out-coached us, they outran us,” Calipari told reporters on Friday. “They got us in transition defense. They got us every which way but loose, and the only reason the game wasn’t 20 is because we made three threes, bankers, or it would’ve been a 20-point game. I’m anxious to see how we’ll play against them, but it’s not like they got worse. LSU got better. It’s going to be a hard game.”
UK forward Julius Randle quietly got to the crux of the matter.
“Our fight and intensity just wasn’t there that game,” he said.
LSU, too, seems to keenly grasp that Big Blue as bit fired up, and that trying to chock up a win over the No. 13 team in the Ratings Percentage Index — one that might start revamping the Tigers’ bubble bonafides — won’t be easy.
You know the old line about revenge being a dish best served cold.
Well, the Tigers know they’re the chosen fare.
“We know that Kentucky can’t wait for us to come in there,” said LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant, who notched a season-high 29 points and 9 rebounds in the first meeting. “They’re probably licking their chops waiting for us to come in there.”
- When: 3 p.m. today.
- Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
- Records: LSU 16-9, 7-6 SEC; Kentucky 20-6, 10-3.
- TV: ESPN.
- Series: Kentucky leads 83-25.
- Last Meeting: LSU won 87-82 on Jan. 28 in Baton Rouge.
NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here.
- Points Per Game: 77.8
- FG %: 45.2
- 3FG%: 33.9
- FT%: 67.5
- Rebounds Per Game: 40.5
- Assists Per Game: 14.8
- Turnovers Per Game: 14.3
- Adjusted Efficiency: 110.2 (No. 68)
- Adjusted Tempo: 71.5 (No. 20)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 16.5 (No. 43)
- Effective FG%: 50.6 (No. 124)
- Turnover %: 19.7 (No. 270)
- Off. Reb %: 36.9 (No. 32)
- FTA/FGA: 35.4 (No. 297)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 72.6
- FG% D: 40.8
- 3FG% D: 36.0
- FT%: 72.3
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.3
- Rebound Margin: +4.2
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.2
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.5
- Adjusted Efficiency: 101.3 (No. 109)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 16.9 (No. 29)
- Effective FG% D: 45.9 (No. 47)
- Turnover %: 18.5 (No. 166)
- Off. Reb. %: 31.9 (No. 196)
- FTA/FGA: 40.1 (No. 164)
- Points Per Game: 78.3
- FG %: 47.0
- 3FG%: 32.7
- FT%: 68.2
- Rebounds Per Game: 41.3
- Assists Per Game: 12.1
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.3
- Adjusted Efficiency: 117.8 (No. 8)
- Adjusted Tempo: 67.0 (No. 155)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 17.1 (No. 96)
- Effective FG%: 51.7 (No. 76)
- Turnover %: 18.1 (No. 147)
- Off. Reb %: 42.9 (No. 1)
- FTA/FGA: 55.1 (No. 8)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 66.5
- FG% D: 39.6
- 3FG% D: 29.8
- FT%: 68.7
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 31.2
- Rebound Margin: + 10.2
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.0
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 11.0
- Adjusted Efficiency: 96.9 (No. 39)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 18.2 (No. 241)
- Effective FG% D: 43.9 (No. 12)
- Turnover %: 16.1(No. 305)
- Off. Reb. %: 30.8 (No. 148)
- FTA/FGA: 36.5 (No. 92)
- Who gets (it) in the Zone? LSU tossed out a curveball in its first meeting with UK, going with a 2-3 zone look that flummoxed the ‘Cats early. Now Calipari and Co. have made a similar move in recent weeks, and, much as the UK coach hates to admit it, it seems to be working out. With No. 2 Florida as the lone exception, Kentucky has allowed just 62.2 points 37.5 percent shooting. Still, Calipari seems to think it’s simply a means to an end. In fact, he sounds downright loathe to use the defense. I would love to be a guy that could do that. “That’s just not me,” he said. “But we’re using it. It’s been effective.” For Calipari, fans only see the stops and not the made baskets, and there’s still a cringe-inducing sensation at the notion that some shots — particularly a deep 3-pointer — will go uncontested on the perimeter. That hasn’t been an issue, though: Kentucky has allowed its last five foes to shoot just 24.7 percent from distance. So, for now, Cal compromises. And it will intriguing to see whether LSU — an average 3-point shooting team at 33.6 percent in SEC play — settles for jumpers or can work the ball inside to Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey, a duo that combined for 43 points and 15 rebounds. “When you’re playing man and switching, it means they’re taking a contested shot,” Calipari said. But it’s a good changeup. It’s a good defense for us. It’s been good, and we’ve worked on it every day, which, you know, is not something I’ve done in the past. But we’re working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win.”
- About face in the paint: Numbers don’t lie, but they can mislead. Take a look at UK’s scoring in the lane from the first tilt. The Wildcats rolled up a 40-32 edge. Their tally was 10.5 points above LSU tends to allow. Think about that: On a night when Mickey and O’Bryant went off, LSU still lost the figurative battle in the lane. And that without the usual production from UK forward Julius Randle (six points, five rebounds) and Willie Cauley-Stein (three points, six rebounds). On Friday, Randle didn’t sound particularly fired up about a second chance Saturday. But his placid state would probably not be optimal. By now, LSU’s struggles on the road defensively are well known. Still, there’s a template and a experience the Tigers front court can draw on as an example. “We did a great job walling up and playing great post defense,” O’Bryant said. “Jordan did a great job blocking shots when he could.” It’s also crucial for O’Bryant to stay out of foul trouble, a predicament he’s run into during road trips to Alabama, Georiga and Texas A&M. Whether that happens with zone or with man-to-man, which LSU relied on at Arkansas for long stretches, is uncertain. On Thursday, LSU coach Johnny Jones said he expects Kentucky to have a countermove ready. ”Certainly, they’ll be much more prepared for the zone this time around,” he said. “Last time we played them, the adjustments we were able to make, they’ll be more sensitive to that. That will certainly be something they’ll be prepared for.” No matter what means Jones and Co. use, keeping Randle and Cauley-Stein in check is a goal.
- Sap the buzz: It goes without saying LSU needs to take the crowd out of the game. Not that they’ve done a fantastic job in their past four road games. During this skid, LSU has found a way to cede a game defining run either with O’Bryant sitting or in the latter stages of the second half. At Ole Miss, there was a 15-0 run over a 2:49 stretch at the end of regulation and into overtime, turning a 69-65 lead into an eventual 88-74 loss. Inside Coleman Coliseum, Alabama tore off a 22-0 run that turned a seven-point deficit into a 22-7 lead that the Crimson Tide protected in an 82-80 win. At Georgia, there was a 13-2 run that let the Bulldogs open up a 36-22 first-half lead. Finally, Arkansas popped off a 14-5 run over five minutes last Saturday to take a 68-62 lead in the Razorbacks 81-70 victory. Sure, the Tigers could have notched three road wins out of that batch, but it was the inability to defend consistently for 40 minutes that ultimately did them in. Today, they can’t spot UK any line of credit.
In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either.
- G Andre Stringer, Sr., 5-10, 190 pounds: If Calipari worries about getting burned from behind the arc, this is LSU’s open flame. Stringer is shooting 40.2 percent behind the 3-point line this season, and he ranks second in the SEC during conference play with a 43.9-percent clip. Stringer’s also the lone consistent scoring presence of LSU’s bench. But keep an eye, too, on what he does defensively. He’ll probably get switched on Aaron Harrison (6-foot-6), Andrew Harrison (6-6) or James Young (6-6) throughout the game, giving up roughly seven inches in height difference. As a matter of course, LSU’s back court tends to struggle with big, physical guards. Tennessee’s Jordan McCrae (19 points), South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell (25 points), Missouri’s trio of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross (63), UK’s Young (23), and Mississippi State’s Craig Sword (33), have all gone off on the Tigers’ back court. The zone took away driving lines for the Harrison twins in the first matchup, leaving the tandem teaming up for 22 points on an inefficient 7 of 20 from the floor. It will be interesting to see if Stringer can find a way to stay in the wheelhouse and bother whichever UK wing player he gets assigned.
- F Julius Randle, 6-9, 250 pounds: Before a 25-point outing at Ole Miss, the UK phenom had been merely mortal in SEC play. His 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and had leveled off to just 13.1 and 9.3 averages during conference action, while Young became the primary scoring threat for Kentucky. Meanwhile, his rate of drawing fouls (7.1 per 40 minutes) and free-throw rate (80.7) have both slipped since the nonconference slate ended. So, the question is will Randle take his best outing in a couple of weeks in Oxford and bring it home to Rupp. If he does, and the Harrison’s find some way to be better finishing around the rim (they were just 4 of 15 inside the arc) than last time, then Kentucky’s offense (rated ninth in adjusted efficiency) should swamp LSU’s porous defense.
KenPom Prediction: Kentucky 84, LSU 71 (88-percent confidence).