ATLANTA – It’s impossible to know John Calipari’s mood around 9 p.m. last night.
The Kentucky coach didn’t make a media appearance ahead of the No. 2 seed Wildcats’ SEC tournament opener today at the Georgia Dome. Instead, he sent an emissary in assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Even then we only received a pool report of quotes.
Somehow, it was all very reminiscent of getting a communiqué from a closed off foreign regime. Or a blue-blood program trying smooth out its issues — namely defensive intensity — under a veil of secrecy.
Regardless, the bracket didn’t exactly offer Kentucky a gift. Instead, CoachCal’s crew gets No. 7 seed LSU, a team that put together one of its best outings of the season in dispatching No. 10 Alabama on Thursday.
You know, the one that reared back and walloped the Wildcats early in Baton Rouge on a night when ice coated the city and 3,500, uh, worked up students poured into the PMAC. Or their rematch nearly a month ago at Rupp Arena, the one where LSU couldn’t cling to the leads it had in the final 90 seconds of overtime and regulation.
If not for the heroics of UK forward Julius Randle with 3.9 seconds left in overtime, the Tigers may have nabbed a sweep. Instead, they flew out of Lexington with a tough road setback.
In light of those events, Antigua was terse when asked about a third meeting.
“Another good game,” he said. ”They’re playing really good basketball. Obviously shot the ball really well tonight, and I just think that we’re going to have another great challenge ahead of us.”
Granted LSU coach Johnny Jones also played diplomat in his post-game press conference — one that featured as many questions about the Tigers’ next game as the one they just finished against the Crimson Tide.
Q: Kind of a best of three with UK. What do you think you guys have to do to win that series?
A: “They’re a very talented basketball team, and it will be a very hard-fought battle (Friday). We have to go and make sure that we’re probably going to play one of our better games all year. We’re going to have to execute at a high level offensively, beat at our best on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky will come in, and they will have an edge about themselves.”
OK, so there’s not a lot of insight to parse out.
But what about LSU guard Anthony Hickey, a native of the state and a three-star prospect that UK never recruited? Although, that story line has been mined, the former Mr. Basketball still doesn’t give away animus toward the in-state power.
“It’s just a great challenge playing the home team,” said Hickey, who dropped 20 points on the Wildcats in the last meeting. “When you see Kentucky, you always get amped up because it’s a big name.”
History, though, doesn’t favor the boys from Baton Rouge. LSU is just 1-15 all-time against Kentucky in SEC tournaments. Meanwhile, which lost its first game in the tournament last season, has never gone one-and-done in back-to-back years.
The Tigers have made it to the semifinals three times in the past decade, and the last time they reached the finals it was 1993. The opponent? Kentucky. The outcome? Try an 82-65 thumping inside Rupp Arena.
But today’s meeting carries big significance, in theory, for the Tigers. Sitting at No. 77 in the Ratings Percentage Index, a win might push that number into the low 60s, helping LSU’s chances at landing in the NIT.
In the afternoon session Thursday, fifth-seeded Arkansas flailed through a 71-69 loss to No. 13 seed South Carolina. On the heels of a 25-point rout in their season finale at Alabama, the Razorbacks likely slid off the NCAA tournament bubble and into the NIT.
Typically, the SEC doesn’t get more than three teams into the 32-team field. Right now, it’s safe to assume two of those slots belong to No. 3 Georgia and No. 8 Missouri, which during the writing of this blog was tangling with top-seeded Florida. If the Hogs are NIT bound, it might leave LSU on the stoop. (I detailed this yesterday a little bit, too.)
Asked about the Razorbacks loss and its impact on the Tigers, or the SEC bubble picture.
“You have to put that in the hands of the (NCAA selection) committee,” Jones said. “Hopefully, you’re playing well, and your body of work speaks for itself.”
If anything, beating Bama simply assured the Tigers don’t fall off the 5/6-seed cutline for the other postseason tournament. A win over UK, though, would give LSU as many wins over the ‘Cats as Arkansas, which swept UK. It would give them a higher RPI, too. Moreover, it puts the Tigers into a semifinal against somewhat favorable matchups with either sixth-seeded Ole Miss and Georgia.
The ramifications, however, are something the Tigers don’t want to broach, even if knocking off UK could put them on a trajectory toward trying to (improbably) sneak into the NCAA tournament. Or simply hold pat with the NIT.
“It was a four-game season, now it’s a three-game season,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “Now it’s a three-game season. The NCAA tournament is something we’ll talk about after this over, hopefully. Our focus is on Kentucky, and we’re going to try and handle business tomorrow.”
- When: 6 p.m. today.
- Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
- Records: No. 7 LSU 19-12; No. 2 Kentucky (22-9)
- TV: WBXH (Dave Neal, Jon Sunvold).
- Series: Kentucky leads 94-35.
- Last Meeting: Kentucky won 77-76 on Feb. 22, 2014, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
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: 75.3
- FG %: 44.5
- 3FG%: 34.0
- FT%: 67.5
- Rebounds Per Game: 39.9
- Assists Per Game: 14.2
- Turnovers Per Game: 13.8
- Adjusted Efficiency: 109.3 (No. 84)
- Adjusted Tempo: 70.2 (No. 31)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 17.0 (No. 73)
- Effective FG%: 50.0(No. 145)
- Turnover %: 19.4 (No. 252)
- Off. Reb %: 35.9 (No. 38)
- FTA/FGA: 34.3 (No. 313)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 70.8
- FG% D: 40.8
- 3FG% D: 35.8
- FT%: 71.0
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.1
- Rebound Margin: +3.8
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.9
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.1
- Adjusted Efficiency: 99.1 (No. 65)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 17.1 (No. 39)
- Effective FG% D: 46.0 (No. 49)
- Turnover %: 18.4 (No. 173)
- Off. Reb. %: 31.4 (No. 171)
- FTA/FGA: 39.0 (No. 135)
- Points Per Game: 76.3
- FG %: 45.2
- 3FG%: 31.6
- FT%: 68.4
- Rebounds Per Game: 41.3
- Assists Per Game: 11.5
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.4
- Adjusted Efficiency: 113.7 (No. 29)
- Adjusted Tempo: 66.4 (No. 178)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 17.3 (No. 104)
- Effective FG%: 49.6 (No. 165)
- Turnover %: 18.3 (No. 164)
- Off. Reb %: 42.7 (No. 1)
- FTA/FGA: 53.7 (No. 7)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 67.1
- FG% D: 40.1
- 3FG% D: 31.3
- FT%: 69.8
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 31.5
- Rebound Margin: +9.8
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.4
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 11.0
- Adjusted Efficiency: 96.6 (No. 43)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 18.4 (No. 256)
- Effective FG% D: 44.7 (No. 20)
- Turnover %: 16.2 (No. 302)
- Off. Reb. %: 30.5 (No. 126)
- FTA/FGA: 37.0 (No. 101)
Here, we look at three areas that may determine the game’s outcome. Stats are pulled from the most recent game notes, while advanced metrics are taken from kenpom.com or hoop-math.com.
- Protect the lane: LSU and Kentucky haven’t exactly locked down on each other in their two prior meetings. LSU is averaging 81.5 points and shooting 45.4 percent. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are posting 79.5 points and hitting at 42.9-percent clip. In Lexington, gave up a lone 3-pointer as Kentucky had its worst days of the season from behind the arc. Not that it mattered. The Wildcats were hell-bent on attacking the paint. They scored 50 points inside, including 24 on second-chance points. The commonly held logic is LSU’s front line of O’Bryant III, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin — all taller than 6-foot-8 — can match the size of Kentucky man for man. And to a degree, they’re right. Julius Randle averages just 7.0 points and shoots just 31.6 percent against LSU. But the paint production comes instead from UK’s bigger guards — all taller than 6-foot-6 — blowing by the Tigers’ smaller combo of Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer, or exploiting the poor footwork and positioning of Martin. To wit: James Young has averaged 21.5 points. Aaron Harrison has posted 17.5 points, too. LSU only allows 29.5 points per game in the paint, while only allowing nine teams to score more than the 33.5 points LSU tends to notch. All of those teams had big guards that exploited on-ball screens and a poor job by LSU navigating screens. Last night, LSU switched more and it’s big men hedged harder to keep Bama’s Trevor Releford from getting downhill and putting pressure on low-post defenders to rotate. Still, Releford’s 2-of-11 shooting performance still saw him get to the line seven times. So, the question is whether the Tigers can carry over the success from Thursday and avoid giving up high-percentage shots.
- Stretch UK’s comfort Zone: Ahead of their game at Rupp, UK had employed some zone looks, much to chagrin of a man-to-man devotee, in Calipari. Similar to LSU, the zone is as much an effort to cover for lapses in focus, poor positioning, or slow close outs than it has to do with maximizing length to clog up passing lanes or clutter up the low block. The antidote is readily available — knock down 3-pointers, make the Wildcats pay some sort of toll for trying to send fast double teams toward O’Bryant or shut down Mickey’s best operating spot near the elbow. “The 3 obviously can be a really big game changer,” Antigua said. “We’re going to have to try to see if we can use our length to make it a little more difficult for them so they’re not as comfortable.” The Tigers have done that twice, knocking down 40.0 percent of their attempts from deep against Kentucky. Hickey and Andre Stringer have combined to hit 10 of 21 attempts, too. If they can’t drive the lane and play in traffic, filling up the scoring column from 3-point shooting is an equalizer.
- Lively minds, dead legs? As I pointed out yesterday, LSU’s rotation is down to roughly seven players. Nine saw action last night, but John Odo and Darcy Malone each only chipped in a minute. Four starters went at least 32 minutes, while O’Bryant logged 27 for the Tigers. UK, despite its widely-touted “best recruiting class ever,” only counters with a seven-man rotation of its own. Moreover, LSU hung with the Cats minus an injured Malik Morgan and absent Tim Quarterman, who didn’t travel to Lexington in order to attend a funeral. The Tigers’ nearly won with only two scholarship guards. But now LSU has to turn around in 22 hours to play against another fresh team, and one in UK that might be looking to build some momentum heading into the NCAA tournament. Yet the win over Bama wasn’t one played in the open floor. KenPom.com estimated there were just 59 possessions per team — roughly 11 below the Tigers’ average each game. Still, in this setting you can’t ignore fatigue, and we’ll see whether LSU has enough for a third go-around with the Wildcats.
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 Anthony Hickey, Jr., 5-11, 185 pounds: Hickey is always quick to say he has no ill will toward Big Blue. His stat-line, though, says otherwise. He’s averaged 12.2 points and 4.2 assists in five career games against the Wildcats, but those have jumped to 15.5 and 7.0, respectively, this season. The Hopkinsville, Ky., native now has the UK staff answering for why they didn’t extend a scholarship offer. “Didn’t take a look at him as much because of our scholarship situation,” Antigua said. ”But I know he’s done an incredible job there at LSU. I would imagine that he would be
excited to play us again.” That’s a safe bet. On this stage, Hickey would love to send the Wildcats’ packing. Yet he’s channeled that energy productively. Can he do it again?
- F Julius Randle, 6-9, 250 pounds: You’d like to think, just based on the law of averages, that the SEC’s Freshman of the Year will bust his slump against LSU. Still, Randle’s been somewhat pedestrian in SEC play. If you look at his past 12 games, Randle is only averaging 11.6 points per game. OK, strip out the poor outings against LSU. It only climbs a smidgen to 12.8 points per game. His rebounding totals, though, haven’t dropped off and he’s still drawing 6.7 fouls per game. A breakout night, combined with UK guards slashing into gaps could doom LSU in this one.
KenPom Prediction: Kentucky 76, LSU 71 (68-percent confidence).