O'Bryant expects to get more attention from Kentucky on Saturday

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 20, 2014 Updated 15 hours ago

  • Next game: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame

    When: 8:49 p.m. Saturday

    Location: Cleveland

    TV: TBS

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: No. 1 seed Kentucky 37-0; No. 3 seed Notre Dame 32-5

    Series: UK leads 42-19

The beginning of Kentucky's game at LSU last month raised a question in the mind of Johnny O'Bryant III: Where is everybody?

That's because UK chose to defend O'Bryant with only one defender.

"To be honest, that probably was — that was — the first time all year that happened," O'Bryant said Thursday. "That was the very first time I saw one-on-one coverage. I tried to take (advantage) as much as possible."

O'Bryant made five of his first six shots, which propelled LSU to an early 22-6. Kentucky, which lost by a deceptively close final score of 87-82, came away wiser. Coach John Calipari openly second-guessed the decision not to double- or even triple-team O'Bryant from the start of the game.

Judging by comments made on Calipari's radio show Wednesday night, Kentucky won't make the same mistake in Saturday's rematch with LSU.

"He had it rolling," Calipari said. "If he does that again, it'll be a tough night again."

Assistant Coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for Calipari much of the show, suggested a UK priority on containing O'Bryant. To "handle Johnny O'Bryant" was the first key he mentioned to winning, he said. "He hurt us. He hurt all our 'bigs,' and there were four of them."

O'Bryant, who scored a season-high 29 points against UK, acknowledged that his production early in a game can set an important tone for LSU.

"Any time I can come out with a lot of momentum or my team can come out with a lot of energy, it helps," he said. ". . . Any time I can hit the gate running, I think it helps my team do the same."

But O'Bryant shied from the notion of LSU as a one-man team.

"I'm a big part of what the team does," he said. "At the same time, we have guys who can make plays. A lot of freshmen can step in if I'm not playing great."

Kentucky saw evidence of that in Baton Rouge. Jordan Mickey scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots. Fellow freshman Jarell Martin added nine points, three rebounds and three blocks.

More than once in trying to defuse the notion of a "bad" loss at LSU, Calipari has spoken of the Tigers' "three pros." O'Bryant is first, or at least most productive, among equals. He's averaging 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. He's shooting better than ever from the field (51.2 percent) and the foul line (64.3).

Those numbers validate his decision — which was a surprise to some — to return to LSU for his sophomore season and then return again for this, his junior season. As the only McDonald's All-American recruited by Trent Johnson during his time as LSU coach, O'Bryant considered the so-called one-and-done route.

"Yeah, I had thoughts about it," he said.

When asked why he didn't enter the NBA Draft after his freshman season of 2011-12, O'Bryant said, "Oh man, I just had to get better. Become a better player.

"I've continued to get better over the years. I'm really glad I had the chance to spend three years in college (slight pause) so far."

Injuries contributed to O'Bryant's decisions to stay in college. He missed five games as a freshmen because of a broken bone in one of his hands. Playing with his hand heavily bandaged, he averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds.

"I was shooting a lot of jump shots and wasn't attacking the rim," O'Bryant said of himself as a freshman. "I wasn't really being the kind of low-post scorer that Trent Johnson knew I could be."

In the opening game of his sophomore season, O'Bryant pulled a calf muscle. Later that season, he suffered a high ankle sprain. Through it all, he averaged 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds.

O'Bryant's productive play against Kentucky last month was no surprise. He scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against the Cats in Rupp Arena last season. In four career games against UK, he's averaged nearly a double-double: 15.3 points and 9.8 rebounds.

O'Bryant has the potential to hurt Kentucky as a recruiter, too. Growing up in Cleveland, Miss., he got to know his home state's famous basketball sons, among them former Mississippi State standout Horatio Webster.

Webster is the father of 2015 high-level recruit Malik Newman. a 6-foot-4 player from Jackson, Miss. Newman says he's considering such college programs as Kentucky, Kansas and Duke.

NCAA rules prohibit O'Bryant from publicly speaking of Newman. When asked what he would tell any prospect about LSU, he said, "This is a rising program. It's going to get back to where it used to be. Coach (Johnny) Jones is doing a great job of getting guys.

"I don't see why a guy wouldn't come here."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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