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GAMETHREAD: No. 19 LSU vs. No. 5 Kentucky, 6 P.M., ESPN

LSU tries to make a statement on national television

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

It always seems to come down to Kentucky doesn’t it?

Tuesday night LSU goes up against the ruler by which all SEC teams are measured in basketball: the Kentucky Wildcats. Tennessee may currently sit atop of the AP and Coaches’ polls, but the conference still belongs to Big Blue Nation. LSU and Kentucky are each 9-1 in conference play, only a game behind the Vols for first place in the SEC. but the Tigers aren’t thought of as a serious challenger to win the league. If LSU wants to be taken seriously, it starts by pulling the upset tonight in Lexington.

This Kentucky team is different than Coach Cal’s other squads. This particular Wildcat team doesn’t have a surefire, guaranteed top-3 pick like Anthony Davis, John Wall or Karl Anthony-Towns on the roster. Sure, there’s still freshmen galore that lead the way for the Cats, but the team can hit you from multiple ways instead of a singular force like Calipari’s had in recent years.

The Wildcats have four players averaging at least ten points and the group is led by sophomore forward PJ Washington. Washington averages 14 points and eight rebounds and does so on an efficient 51 percent shooting from the floor; Washington’s proved to be a capable three-point shooter, knocking down around 44 percent of the 49 attempted threes this season.

Guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro are two of Kentucky’s most impactful freshman, each of whom are averaging 13 points. The first-year starting trio is rounded out by Ashton Hagans who will most likely be checking Tremont Waters on the defensive end. Hagans has about four or five inches on Waters, but isn’t nearly the shooter, scorer or passer that Waters is.

The Tigers’ strength lies in their ability to use their length and grab offensive rebounds. Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams will, once again, have the height advantage over Kentucky’s Washington and grad transfer Reid Travis. Reid, Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams and Darius Days must have a rebounding effort similar to Saturday against Auburn to beat the Cats at home.

Speaking of Auburn, LSU cannot afford to have a similarly slow start like they did Saturday or Kentucky will have their way with them. The Tigers have shown resilience by being able to overcome large deficits against Missouri, Arkansas and Auburn, but playing Kentucky in Rupp Arena is a totally different animal. The biggest reason for the Cats current 10-game winning streak is the play of the defense; they are only allowing 65 points a game, holding opponents to 40 percent from the floor, 35 percent from three, and teams only get to the line about 15 times a game. Kentucky’s come a long way since getting blown out by Duke on opening night and they are every bit the top-five team as their ranking indicates.

The Wildcats are favored tonight and for good reason. They’re at home, have won ten straight and might be especially focused after letting an 18-point lead nearly slip away Saturday against Mississippi State. But for the first time in years, LSU has talent that may not surpass Kentucky, but is at least comparable to theirs.

Kentucky’s playing to keep up with Tennessee in the SEC race. Well, so is LSU. But LSU has more to gain from a win than Kentucky; you beat Kentucky in their building to grab second place in the league and you get Tennessee coming to Baton Rouge next Saturday? Suddenly LSU isn’t just a contender for the SEC, they might even be the favorite as the calendar turns to March.

Playing Kentucky is always the biggest game on the basketball schedule for LSU, but this year is especially true. We’ll see if they’re up for the challenge.