Well, LSU and Kentucky sure have a hell of an act to follow.
After Oklahoma and Kansas’ thrilling 3-OT game to kick off Big Monday, the Tigers and Wildcats are the nightcap showcase for Super Tuesday on ESPN.
The stakes may not get much bigger than this for LSU all year. Win and it’s on. The Tigers would officially be back in position to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. It would also say a whole lot about this team’s rapid progression from the December doldrums.
Lose? Well, it’s no backbreaker for the season, but LSU won’t have many chances left to score marquee wins. There’s one more game at Kentucky, two against an increasingly strong Texas A&M team and the aforementioned Sooners and Buddy Hield. That’s about it. The early-season losses didn’t bounce LSU from contention just yet. They did put a premium on games like this.
The game is a sell out, there should be no traffic issues, winter weather concerns or any other excuses, so the PMAC will be rocking. The Tigers will need it to be. Kentucky may not be the undefeated juggernaut they were when LSU took them down to the wire in a 71-69 loss last season. They’re still plenty, plenty talented and finally starting to put the pieces together.
Given Skal Labissiere’s slow development and the departure of two All-Americans inside (Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns), John Calipari has retooled Kentucky from half-court bludgeoners to crisp motion sets on offense. It’s close to ideal for their personnel, and has allowed UK to bounce back from some curious losses to UCLA and Ohio State with impressive wins over Louisville and a blowout of Ole Miss.
Unfortunately for LSU, that offensive style may be an issue. The Tigers have struggled to keep teams out of the lane all season, although they dramatically improved on that against Vanderbilt. Still, sophomore Tyler Ulis is far more elusive than the Commodore guards and has much better skill all around. Priority No. 1 needs to be keeping Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe or the Cats leading scorer, Jamal Murray, from driving at will.
On the other side of the court, UK is a stout defensive squad. That’s hardly a surprise. With lanky and athletic 5-star talent all over the floor, the Wildcats are usually just physically superior. They hold opponents below 30 percent shooting beyond the arc, block six shots per game and establish a +7 rebounding margin on average. The Tigers will need to be especially careful with the ball, while perhaps paradoxically, getting out in transition to avoid the slog UK’s half-court defense can create.
Most of this will fall to Ben Simmons. Just like he did in the Vandy game, Simmons needs to be the command center of this offense. He should be its first option scoring the ball, but also willing to use any overcooked focus on him to free his teammates. I guarantee you the point-forward has tons of experience on the AAU circuit playing against the Cats’ 5 stars, and that may offer some useful advantage for an intuitive player like Simmons.
Unlike them, he doesn’t have a bunch of other 5-stars around him, and he'll want to show them he made the right call coming to Baton Rouge. There’s a fine line between a usage rate that’s too high and Simmons’ deferent attitude early in the season. If he can find the balance, LSU is in great shape. If he can’t, the Tigers still likely have a better shot of winning with Simmons playing something close to hero ball.
There’s a lot of snark out there about this team after the preseason hype gave way to almost laughable losses in non-conference play. Maybe it’s deserved. It’s certainly understandable cynicism for a fanbase who has been yanked around so much during the last two decades. I don’t believe one road win at Vanderbilt is enough to instill belief in this team yet.
I also know that LSU is plenty talented enough, with its season practically on the line, to ride an unusually raucous home crowd to a win against a "rebuilding" Kentucky team. It may not happen but the game should be fun and competitive enough to keep the Tigers trending upward.
Anything less than that truly would be disappointing.