John Clay: Enjoy Kentucky's feel-good win but understand what it means

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 22, 2014 

After the exhilaration of the great escape subsides, and the miles of smiles from Kentucky's thrilling 77-76 overtime win over LSU begin to fade a bit, a troubling question remains.

At the risk of being the buzzkill, how did the team that narrowly avoided the upset find itself in the position where it had to avoid the upset in the first place?

Answer: If March is all about matchups, this is a matchup that threatens to take down the Cats.

True, Kentucky showed its will to win down the stretch on Saturday. Andrew Harrison coolly swished a pair of rainbow free throws with 10.9 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Julius Randle converted the rebound basket with four seconds remaining in overtime to give UK the win.

Yes, the Cats trailed 65-63 with 20.7 seconds left in regulation and 74-71 with 1:58 to go in overtime and pulled out the victory.

But here comes the wet blanket: Kentucky was a 12-point favorite. The Cats were nearly swept by a team that is now 7-7 in the SEC.

"I don't care what their record is," said John Calipari. "That's a good basketball team."

Against Kentucky, LSU is a very good basketball team.

The Tigers have the type of size under the basket, in both height and width, to take away UK's usual advantage in that area. And in Anthony Hickey, LSU has just the type of quick, darting point guard that gives the Cats' taller but slower guards fits.

There's a reason LSU won the first meeting in Baton Rouge 87-82, and it wasn't just the unusual weather conditions and the home team's quick 22-6 lead. There's a reason Johnny Jones' club stayed too close for comfort with the 18th-ranked team in the nation on its own home floor.

"They match up well with us," Randle said.

Ah, from the mouths of babes.

"Someone wants to question whether they're an NCAA Tournament team?" said Calipari of the Tigers. "Why? So no one else loses? LSU is the one that lost a couple of games."

More than a couple, it turns out. Since beating Kentucky, LSU had lost by 13 at Georgia, by 10 at Texas A&M and by 11 at Arkansas. Heading into Saturday's game, LSU was ranked 65th by both the RPI and Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings.

Truth is, there are teams out there with LSU's physical attributes, but more basketball skill.

Kentucky again found it so hard to guard Johnny O'Bryant, he of the 29 points and nine rebounds in the first meeting. Calipari was forced to play a lot of zone.

And when Hickey, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, started hitting three-pointers, Cal went back to man-to-man with hard double teams on O'Bryant, who ended up with 20 points and 12 rebounds.

By the way, Draft Express lists O'Bryant as the 56th-best prospect for the 2014 NBA Draft.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, Draft Express' No. 4 prospect, Randle, scored just eight points after being held to a season-low six in Baton Rouge. Kentucky made just one of nine three-pointers.

"I told our guys, keep driving the ball, keep driving the ball," said Calipari.

Once again the young Cats too often lollygagged instead of racing back consistently in transition. They also suffered communication breakdowns.

Obvious example: With 1:58 left in overtime, a defensive error allowed Hickey an easy layup off an inbounds play for a 74-71 LSU lead.

True, the Cats made the plays from there to get the win. Randle made a pair of free throws with 1:38 left in the extra period. James Young, who had struggled at the foul line all game, made two more with 24.7 seconds remaining. And then Randle made the play at the end, grabbing a loose ball and sticking it in the basket with four ticks left to give Kentucky the win.

"We're growing in so many ways," Calipari said.

To use a Calipari term: Is that an opinion, or a hope?

If you're Kentucky, you hope you don't see a team with the same makeup as LSU when March comes calling.

But you probably will.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service