A year after one of the great LSU basketball moments in recent memory, Kentucky is coming back to the PMAC and there's no ice in sight this time. Kentucky always brings out the best in the building, with everything from Mardi Gras madness to Ice Dome memories to a takedown of Anthony Davis happening between LSU and Kentucky in the last 20 years or so. With a national TV audience and a sellout crowd awaiting, there hasn't been this much hype for an LSU home game, really, since 2000.
For a moment, forget what a win would mean in the larger context of things, how this affects LSU's tourney chances, etc. I wrote this last year and it still holds true.
"Beating Kentucky is the reward in itself, much like besting Alabama in football has become. The Wildcats are the perennial monster atop the SEC, a Big Blue Nation similar in fervor and reach to the roll of the Tide."
That is more true than ever right now, with Kentucky entering this contest as the consensus No. 1 team at 23-0, with a 32-point romp over Kansas and other impressive wins against teams like UNC, Texas, Louisville, UCLA and Providence. Former Duke player and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has called them the best defensive team he's ever seen.
And that's absolutely where it starts for Kentucky, since they run out four guys over 6-foot-6 in the starting lineup and four more reserves who play forward or center. They are long, active and almost like a professional team in terms of floor coverage. They play almost exclusively 5-star guys. They are the No. 1 defensive team in the country by almost any metric. That's why the Cats are a juggernaut who is mostly tinkering and toying around in preparation for the NCAA Tournament. Many nights, they are practically playing themselves. Throw in an offense that ranks seventh in adjusted points per possession and there's no obvious weakness here.
Still, they have proven less invincible in SEC play, partly because they are getting everyone's best shot and the razor-sharp focus isn't always there. That's where LSU has a chance. It will have a sellout PMAC crowd behind it, the first one since 2009 and the first SEC sellout since 2006. Don't be surprised if LSU plays above its pay grade here.
The change to the starting lineup, inserting Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson for Josh Gray and Darcy Malone, seemed to at least wake up the Tigers vs. Alabama after some brutal efforts against Auburn and Mississippi State. Part of me thinks Johnny Jones was trying to save that look for this game, much like he flummoxed a freshman-laden UK team with a surprising zone last year. I mean, remember this?
Quarterman, along with Martin and Mickey, will make sure LSU isn't completely outclassed athletically and could extend some of Kentucky's issues with scoring droughts in league play. The Tigers may have to resort to such a zone again, considering that Hornsby, Gray and even Patterson will be severly undersized against most of Kentucky's guards.
Offensively for LSU, you'd think a team with the Wildcats' athleticism would dare teams to run and play the passing lanes. Instead, Kentucky wants to slow you down and smother you with length in the halfcourt (UK is in the 200s in tempo). And it's worked wonders, with only four teams reaching 60 points in regulation versus Big Blue. It's crucial for the Tigers to get at least a few easy buckets off UK miscues. That style will also put a premium on LSU's 3-point shooting, since Kentucky is one of the few teams that can not only match but even outman LSU's frontline in the paint. Keith Hornsby, Jalyn Patterson and perhaps even Jarell Martin might need a big game beyond the arc.
If those qualifiers and requirements sound difficult, they are. But Texas A&M (whom LSU lost to by 1) took UK to double overtime and Ole Miss (whom LSU defeated) lost in OT in Rupp Arena. Even Florida - which granted, the Gators played maybe their best game of the season - had it as a 2-point game in the final 90 seconds against Kentucky just three days ago.
No one's beaten Kentucky yet, but they are not unbeatable. This LSU team seems to play almost exclusively to its competition. For once, that would be a good thing.