LSU head coach Will Wade said the Tigers had stepped up in weight class when playing against Mississippi State and Auburn.
On Tuesday the No. 19 Tigers (19-4, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) will step up another weight class, he said, when they take on No. 5 Kentucky (20-3, 9-1) in Rupp Arena at 6 p.m. in a primetime Top 25 matchup on ESPN’s flagship network.
The two teams currently hold a tie for second place in the league, and the winner will take sole position of that spot with a victory. LSU has never defeated a John Calipari-coached Kentucky squad in Rupp Arena.
“Kentucky’s a different animal than what we’ve been playing,” Wade said. “Their size, their length, their athleticism, how big they are down low and the way they defensively rebound the ball (make them a different animal).”
Coaching a young team with a lot of freshman serving vital roles to his team’s success, Wade said he view Kentucky coach John Calipari as someone to aspire coaching like.
Calipari has become known for developing young teams into national championship-caliber squads despite a high turnover rate of stars.
Wade said he has a newfound appreciation for what Calipari has accomplished at Kentucky over the last decade since he took the program over.
“They’re the best program in the league, and (Calipari) is a phenomenal coach,” Wade said. “He does a great job with those guys, how hard they play and how well they play defensively. To get his teams with the young guys that they have to play like they do is truly impressive.
“Me having kind of gone through it for the first time this year gives me more appreciation for just… he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how good of a coach he is. He’s a phenomenal basketball coach.”
Kentucky enters the game on a 10-game win streak since losing its SEC opener to Alabama.
The Wildcats have largely used its stellar defense to get the job done, allowing SEC opponents to average just 60.3 points per game against them.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have struggled to get things going offensively as of late.
LSU has shot 27.5 percent from the 3-point line in its last five games, and in four of those games it has had to overcome a double-digit deficit to give itself a chance to win.
Wade said the Tigers will likely have no such luxury Tuesday
night against Kentucky.
“We’re not going to get as many possessions,” Wade said. “We’re going to have to shoot it better. We’re not going to be able to just go grab 20 offensive rebounds against Kentucky. We’re going to need to make some shots. We’re going to need to keep it within a working margin.
We’re not going to be able to get down 16 points or 14 points, whatever it’s been in each of the games. We’re not going to be able to get down all of that and just chip away against Kentucky.”
Kentucky courts an effective 6-foot-3 point guard in Ashton Hagans, who averages 7.3 points and 4.5 assists per game. His size could potentially give Tremont Waters problems, but Wade said he’s confident his star point guard will be able to handle it.
Kentucky’s leading scorer into the game is forward PJ Washington with 14.2 points and eight rebounds per game on the season.
The Wildcats play a slightly smaller rotation than LSU to start games out with Washington and Reid Travis — both 6-foot-8 — on the floor, but then rotate in the 6-foot-11 Nick Richards and 6-foot-10 EJ Montgomery who provide a large and physical presence in the post when necessary.
The post rotation serves in contrast to what LSU usually does as the Tigers typically start its two biggest guys in Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams to start games off before rotating in smaller guys that can stretch the floor in Emmitt Williams and Darius Days.
Wade said he doesn’t expect LSU to have a size advantage per say, but he thinks Reid and Bigby-Williams will be vital to the Tigers’ success in Rupp Arena.
“We’re going to need them to play extremely well, there’s no secret about that,” Wade said. “We’re going to need them to play well and stay on the court.”
WHO: No. 19 LSU at No. 5 Kentucky
WHEN: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Rupp Arena (capacity 23,500), Lexington, Ky.
LAST MEETING: 74-71, Jan. 3, 2017.
SERIES RECORD: 89-26 Kentucky
NET RANKINGS: No. 17 LSU, No. 5 Kentucky
FUN FACT: LSU hasn’t won in Rupp Arena since February 28, 2009 when it defeated the Wildcats 73-70. Kentucky is 11-2 against the Tigers since John Calipari took the team over the next season.