No. 1 is in the building. It's Buddy Hield vs. Ben Simmons. The Tigers have a chance to earn an ace NCAA Tournament resume boost. Students are on the PMAC ramps well ahead of tip-off. It's the biggest home game since... last year.
Yup, this feels a whole lot like when undefeated and No. 1 Kentucky rolled into town 51 weeks ago and barely staved off LSU by two points. I expect a similarly competitive game this Saturday in this Big 12-SEC Challenge clash.
You could make an argument that LSU and OU have comparable talent, but let's get this out of the way now: Oklahoma is the better team here, and it's not even close. That doesn't necessarily matter, especially in this of all seasons in college basketball.
In January alone, Kansas was smoked at unranked Oklahoma State, a top-5 Xavier team lost to unranked Georgetown at home, West Virginia lost at home to Texas, Michigan State dropped consecutive games to a down Wisconsin team and to Nebraska, SMU fell at Temple and Texas A&M lost at Arkansas on Wednesday. Even North Carolina lost at a thoroughly mediocre Northern Iowa team in November. Those are all top 15 teams, most top 10. No one is immune from these types of losses this season. LSU will have a rowdy sell-out crowd behind it, and there's no reason the Tigers can't deliver the kind of focused, high-level performance that propelled them to a win over Kentucky three weeks ago.
As for Simmons and Hield, it's a showdown in hype only. Simmons almost certainly won't spend the game chasing Hield around the perimeter and Oklahoma wouldn't risk foul trouble for the star guard by sticking him on Simmons. They may be two of the foremost Player of the Year candidates but they won't be matched up often, if at all. The task of guarding Hield will likely fall to Tim Quarterman. It's a big ask of even a great defender like Quarterman.
Hield has bordered on unreal this season, averaging 26 points per game, while shooting above 50 percent beyond the arc and from the field. He can also get to the basket with ease, drawing fouls if he can't finish. That's just fine, because he's a 90 percent free-throw shooter. Simmons is the greater talent but Hield is the polished version as a senior. I mean, Hield dropped 46 points during the Sooners loss at Kansas. The Allen Fieldhouse crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Beyond Hield, the Sooners are just so explosive, especially shooting 3s. Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins both shoot above 45% from deep, making OU the best three-point shooting team in the nation. Ryan Spangler and shot-blocker Khadeem Latin anchor the interior. Hield is the best player LSU will face this year, and Oklahoma is the best team the Tigers will see.
That said, there are paths to victory. LSU can't afford a slow start from Simmons. They need the likely No. 1 pick to play like the generational talent he is right from opening tip. The Tigers need somebody beside Keith Hornsby to deliver some consistent outside shooting. They better make their free throws, especially in a close game. Craig Victor and Simmons need to avoid foul trouble. On that note, Oklahoma's starting five is mighty intimidating but they don't have tremendous depth. If LSU can get Spangler and/or Latin into foul trouble, there's a window to take advantage in the paint. Victor has transformed this team from December's doldrums, and he needs to shoot a high percentage and avoid Oklahoma's traps on the block.
It's going to take this team's best shot, and perhaps a mediocre shooting day out of OU. The odds are slim. Still, a win would not surprise me, and a close loss would at least mean LSU can compete with the elite. Luckily for LSU, this is not a must win. But a victory over No. 1? It would instantly transform this team from a bubble squad to a team with far more to play for.
A 6-2 start in the SEC hasn't told us much about this team. We ought to find out a whole lot in this one.