LSU coach agrees: UK harder to guard this year

'Not a lot of holes' in this year's Cats, Johnson says

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 15, 2011 

Arkansas LSU Basketball

LSU forward Storm Warren, top, got tangled with Arkansas guard Jeff Peterson on Wednesday. Warren, the Tigers' most experienced post player, is dealing with a sore Achilles' tendon.

BILL FEIG — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Because a record five first-round draft picks propelled Kentucky to a 35-3 record in 2009-10, it's hard to believe the Cats might be even harder to defend this year.

But LSU Coach Trent Johnson has joined such colleagues as Louisville's Rick Pitino and Georgia's Mark Fox in expressing just that opinion.

"Their ability to shoot it and play in the half-court and full-court is probably a little better than that team they had last year," Johnson said this week as he prepared to lead LSU against Kentucky on Saturday. "Don't get me wrong. That team last year was just so powerful. They just pounded you."

Kentucky pounded LSU 81-55 last season. The Cats outrebounded LSU 53-33 and enjoyed advantages of 46-22 in points from the paint and 17-2 in second-chance points.

While lacking the same interior power, Kentucky has better perimeter shooting and enough sniping around the basket to keep opponents honest, the coaches say.

"This group, man, there's not a lot of holes," Johnson said. "It's not a question they're harder to guard."

UK Coach John Calipari scoffed when Pitino opined that this season's Cats might be more difficult to contain. He tried sarcasm when reminded Thursday that Fox agreed with Pitino. Noting UK's 38-percent shooting in losing at Georgia last weekend, Calipari quipped, "Maybe he's talking about his coaching."

Turning serious, Calipari repeated what he said earlier this season: Post presence separates pretenders from contenders.

"If you don't have post presence, your team is a fraud," he said, "if you can't throw to the post and make somebody double-team or score the ball."

Thinking of Kentucky's attempts to manufacture a low-post game at Georgia, Calipari said that "one guy," meaning Darius Miller, made only two of 11 shots. "The other guy wanted to shoot threes," he added in apparent reference to freshman Terrence Jones.

"Then you're relying on all jump shots and drives. You can't play games like that."

LSU, which won its first two Southeastern Conference games to match its total of league victories all of last season, comes to Lexington as the SEC's youngest/least experienced team. Injuries will make the Tigers even younger and more inexperienced in Rupp Arena. Freshman guard Ralston Turner, the team's leading scorer, injured a foot at Virginia two weeks ago and will not play, Johnson said. Wanting to avoid any possibility of a stress fracture developing, the LSU coach has taken a conservative approach toward bringing Turner back. "Those things are real delicate," he said.

Storm Warren, LSU's most experienced front-court player, has been hampered by tendinitis in his right Achilles' tendon. He played seven minutes at Auburn and 11 minutes against Arkansas on Wednesday. By the end of the Arkansas game, he was limping.

Earlier this week, Johnson said that LSU ranked 326th out of 345 Division I teams in terms of experience. When asked if his Tiger cubs could see the big picture of a rebuilding effort while struggling at times this season, the LSU coach said, "They do see the big picture (as) competing like hell every possession."

Freshman guards Andre Stringer and Mark Derenbecker give LSU perimeter play. Transfer Malcolm White from Mississippi and junior Garrett Green have been active around the basket.

LSU's victories over Auburn and Arkansas fit the same pattern. The Tigers built early double-digit leads, then held on almost frantically down the stretch.

Johnson, a no-nonsense type, said he'd like to credit solid defense as the reason for the early leads. But, he added, the Tigers played zone and greatly benefited from the opposition missing makeable shots.

"I hope that's the case with everybody we play moving forward," he said. "I wouldn't mind that at all."

As for the leads nearly disappearing down the stretch, the LSU coach said his team was not good enough to bury opponents at this stage of development.

"We're not going to run away and hide from anybody," he said. "That's just a fact. The bottom line is we've got to compete our (butts) off and execute and do the things we do."

Whether Kentucky is better or worse than last season, LSU does not want to run with the Cats. The Tigers would like a slower pace and a close score heading into the final few minutes.

"We're going to hold them to the fewest points possible and just play our game," Derenbecker said on Thursday, "and, hopefully, we can keep it tight down the stretch and give ourselves a chance to win."

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