It's come to this.
For the all the ridiculous and maddening struggles of this year's team, there is STILL an SEC championship on the line. LSU ought to know the result of the Texas A&M-Vanderbilt game by tipoff -- the Tigers need a Commodores win in College Station for any shot at the crown -- but this is a must-win for LSU no matter what.
Because if the Tigers want any shot at salvaging this lost season with an at-large NCAA bid, this is the first of a brutal two-step program to do so. LSU needs to win at Kentucky and then make it to the SEC Tournament finals for any shot at a bid. With a loss in Rupp Arena today, the Tigers would be forced to win the tournament outright. Even a win coupled with an A&M triumph still earns LSU the 2 seed, an important step toward setting up potential success in Nashville.
So good luck with the first part of that task. LSU's won in Rupp exactly once since 1989. Kentucky is 16-0 at home this season, and winners of 36 straight overall in the building. This is the most difficult road trip in the league, and LSU's season of course rides on it.
And there's no Keith Hornsby again, a big loss in this environment. He essentially shot the Tigers into the tournament last year in a similar situation on a buzzer-beater at Arkansas with LSU shorthanded sans Jordan Mickey. But this time, the opposition is also gaining full strength with LSU losing it. Derek Willis will be back after missing three games with an ankle injury.
Like Kentucky needs the help. The Wildcats are 5-2 in their last seven games despite some rough road losses, and have essentially played like a top 15 team since late January. This is not the UK team that lost to LSU and Auburn on the road in early January. They'll have revenge on the mind for the PMAC loss, a championship in play and the team will be at full strength. That all makes this a lion's den for a team missing its senior leader, like LSU is.
And yet... this is exactly the kind of game in which the Tigers usually do something silly and play great. After all, LSU is 2-4 against UK under Johnny Jones (a good mark for an LSU coach vs. UK), with the two losses in Rupp coming by five points each -- one in overtime two years ago. The Tigers do indeed seem to get up for big games under Jones, corralling the roster's immense talent into a product that can compete among the game's best.
The Hornsby absence makes this more unlikely, but Ben Simmons and the Antonio Blakeney of February can go a long way if they play up to Kentucky's also-impressive talent. The Tigers will need to run Jamal Murray off the 3-point line. Craig Victor will need to stay out of foul trouble, a tall order for him this season. Blakeney and Jalyn Patterson need to be reliable perimeter scorers. Perhaps most importantly, the good version of Tim Quarterman needs to show up.
Isolated, these are not especially unlikely tasks. But we've rarely seen LSU put such pieces together, specifically on the road.
If this team has any hope of reaching a mature state and playing to their ability, a win in Rupp is vital beyond just this season. It's a program-defining moment, a damning indictment of Jones' season but also an opportunity to make a landmark statement.
After all, the last time LSU won in the Bluegrass State?
2009, when the Tigers clinched the league title with a win at Kentucky.