Kentucky’s victory over archrival Louisville was satisfying. But it was how UK went about defeating U of L that pleased the coaches. They saw more of the same against Ole Miss on Saturday and hope to see it again repeatedly the rest of the season.
“We played,” assistant coach Kenny Payne said Monday. “We played hard. In a sense, you can say we played desperate. That’s who we are. That’s who we have to be. If we do that, we’ll be fine.
“But if we come out and (act) casual or nonchalant or let them be the aggressor, we’re going to struggle.”
Tuesday night’s game against LSU will likely feature two teams wanting to initiate the action and force the other to react. LSU (8-5) has been hearing about being an underachieving team all season. The Wall Street Journal already speculated about star freshman Ben Simmons being the first No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick from college who never played in the NCAA Tournament.
A victory over Kentucky — three days after winning at Vanderbilt — would dramatically change perceptions of LSU.
“I believe the LSU team Kentucky sees on film will not be the LSU they play against,” said Jay Bilas, who will work the ESPN telecast of the game. “They’ll get LSU’s absolute best.”
Freshman star Ben Simmons played down the game’s showdown undertone. “We’re just ready to play,” he said. “I’m not going to get into all the hype, or what the media is saying.”
LSU, which has a Ratings Percentage Index of 164 (between Coastal Carolina and Cleveland State), made a mockery of that number in winning at Vandy on Saturday. Of course, only 17 days ago, Kentucky lost to an Ohio State team with an RPI of 176.
“I’m anxious to see how we respond,” UK Coach John Calipari said on a Southeastern Conference teleconference Monday.
The proper response starts with good defense, pressuring the ball handler and, as Payne said, “getting after it.”
Kentucky’s 71-69 victory at LSU last season further inflames the Tigers. That’s especially true for guard Keith Hornsby, who missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds.
“That game was pretty hard on me as far as how the ending went,” Hornsby said. “We just know that we’re looking forward to a game that everybody around here looks forward to for the better part of a year.”
Following a midweek meeting, LSU won at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
“I think we had a better edge coming into this game,” Hornsby said after the victory. “We came out with a different type of energy, and were better prepared.”
LSU needed a better edge, especially defensively. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, LSU ranked next to last among SEC teams in points allowed (76.2 ppg) and 11th in both field-goal defense (opponents shooting 43.2 percent) and three-point defense (35.5 percent).
“They don’t play with the kind of defensive intensity you have to have to win,” Bilas said before LSU beat Vandy. Vandy shot 46.3 percent overall and 43.5 percent from three-point range. So nothing changed there.
The difference came in rebounding. LSU ranked 10th among SEC teams in rebound margin (minus 0.5) in non-conference play, but outrebounded Vandy 39-26.
Star freshman Ben Simmons “grabs a lot of rebounds,” Bilas said. “He’s the best rebounder in the country. But some of his teammates watch him do it or wait for him to do it. And I don’t think that’s going to work.”
Lee is consistent
Marcus Lee needs one more block, 13 more rebounds and three more offensive rebounds to equal his totals from last season. He has already surpassed last season’s point total by 16.
“He’s been probably one of the most consistent ‘bigs,’ if not the most consistent ‘big’,” Payne said.
As to how Lee must improve, Payne said, “Sit down in a stance and take pride in defense like Willie (Cauley-Stein) did.”
Dominique Hawkins, who injured an ankle against Ole Miss on Saturday, did not practice Sunday. With Calipari sounding pessimistic that Hawkins would practice Monday, it seemed unlikely the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball would play at LSU.
Skal Labissiere had his right thumb covered with a protective wrap as he spoke to reporters before Monday’s practice.
He said he went up to block a shot, presumably in Sunday’s practice, and banged the thumb off the backboard. He did not seem concerned about a sore thumb preventing him from playing.
▪ Among his many contributions, Simmons gets to the foul line. He ranks No. 15 nationally with an average of 8.2 foul shots per game. He’s made 74.8 percent of his free throws. By comparison, Tyler Ulis leads UK with an average of 4.4 free throw attempts per game.
▪ Brad Nessler, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.