Even when Kentucky doesn’t quite seem like Kentucky – meaning the perennial SEC basketball power is regarded as a Final Four favorite loaded with NBA lottery picks – the rest of the league usually has to go through the Wildcats to win the conference.
Which is where defending SEC regular champ LSU finds itself tonight at 8 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center when conference leader and 10th ranked Kentucky visits. The game will be televised on ESPN.
LSU (18-7 overall, 9-3 in the SEC) is tied with No. 13 Auburn (22-3, 9-3) one game back of Kentucky (20-5, 10-2). With six league games remaining, the conference leaderboard changes almost every game.
Over the weekend, the three-way tie for first place was broken when Kentucky won 66-62 at home over Ole Miss despite making just 2-of-22 3-pointers, LSU allowed 13 3s in an 88-82 loss at Alabama and Auburn playing without its injured projected NBA lottery pick Issac Okuro lost 85-73 at Missouri.
While LSU coach Will Wade acknowledged Monday that Kentucky “is a tremendous team, they’re physical, well coached,” he’s more concerned fixing the problems that has led his team to lose three of its last four games after a 10-game winning streak.
First and foremost, the Tigers can’t guard the 3-point line to save their lives. In those three aforementioned losses to Vanderbilt, Auburn and Alabama, that trio of teams made 43-of-109 3s (39.4 percent).
Wade said opposing teams have watched Vandy’s game plan vs. LSU on tape and have followed suit.
“Vanderbilt coach (Jerry) Stackhouse did a very good job of exposing some of our weakest links,” Wade said. “I knew that the book was out on us a little bit. They were able to isolate the same two or three guys almost the entire game. That’s what every team has pretty much done since then.
“They just attack the same two or three people over and over and over and over and over again. It’s not necessarily that those are the people that get scored on. That’s how we get in rotation and get put behind the play. Then we get scored on.”
Wade would love the luxury of pulling the repeating offending defenders from the game, but he doesn’t have the depth. In Saturday’s loss at Alabama, the Tigers just got back the services of guard Charles Manning Jr. back after he missed eight games with a broken foot.
Considering LSU has an eight-man rotation and sophomore starting forward Darius Days is a foul magnet, Wade can’t afford to bench anybody.
“I don’t think we were necessarily playing great in the 10-game winning streak, and I don’t think we’re necessarily not playing well now,” Wade said. “We’re not just terrible. We’re still a good team. We’ve got to be better and improve in some areas, particularly on the defensive side.”
LSU’s lone consistent bright spot as of late has been senior guard Skylar Mays. His scoring average has risen to 16.5 points after scoring 20-plus points in the last three games. He equaled the stretch of former Tigers’ point guard Tremont Waters who scored 20-plus points three straight games about this same time two years ago.
Mays and point guard Javonte Smart (12.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg) will have their hands full with UK guards Ashton Hagans (12 ppg, 6.7 apg), Tyrese Maxey (13.9 ppg) and Immanuel Quickley (15 ppg).
The same can be said for Tigers’ forwards Emmitt Williams (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Trendon Watford (13.9 ppg, 7 rpg) and Days (11.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
Their challenge is dealing with Kentucky’s lengthy forwards 6-11 Nick Richards (14.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg), 6-10 EJ Montgomery (6.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and 6-7 Keion Brooks (4.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
“We haven’t been imposing our will on the glass,” Wade said. “We’ll need to be better because Richards and Brooks and Montgomery. Those guys are a certainly formidable front line.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari’s team hasn’t blown anybody out in SEC play, but the Wildcats are still winning despite themselves.
“These kids are not computers and they’re not robots,” Calipari said after Saturday’s win over Ole Miss. “This is not a fantasy league, this is not on a computer. This is real stuff. They don’t play great every night.
“The guys here, the one thing they learn at Kentucky is to fight because everybody is playing us like that team (Ole Miss) played us. If you don’t learn to fight, you’ve got to go somewhere (else), it ain’t working (here).”