To hear Matthew Mitchell explain it, Kentucky needs to bring bubble wrap for the ball on Thursday night.
“We’re going to have to play with great poise, offensively take care of the ball,” the UK coach said of the Cats’ trip to Louisiana State. “Ball security will be a major issue in this game. We need to concentrate and try to take care of the ball the best we can.”
Kentucky will need as much protection as possible when it meets the Tigers at the Pete Maravich Center.
LSU leads the nation in total steals (248) and the Southeastern Conference in steals per game with 13.8, forcing 22.7 turnovers a game this season.
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But there’s a flip side statistically in this matchup: The Cats lead the league and are among the best in the nation at taking care of the ball, including five games in which UK had single-digit turnovers. Two of those came in the SEC against Tennessee (five) and Missouri (nine).
“We’ve had a lot more patience this year offensively,” said Mitchell, who saw his team turn the ball over 302 times at this point last season compared to just 216 this season, a 12 miscues per game average.
“Our post players turned it over a ton last year. We had a lot of walks, travels, things of that nature with our pivot foot. You know, we’ve done a good job of not getting in a rush. … We worked hard on it during the summer.”
Senior guard Makayla Epps said the team doesn’t freak out when the shot clock starts to wind down, which is why Kentucky (12-6, 3-2 SEC) is sixth best in the nation at taking care of the ball.
“This is the first year we’ve really done a very good job of taking care of the ball, and I love it,” she said. “We’re just more patient.”
LSU will be a true test of that patience with their aggressive style of defense led by Raigyne Moncrief, sixth nationally in steals with 64. She’s one of three players across the country who have managed double-digit steals in a game.
“This is a team in LSU that is just relentless defensively,” Mitchell said. “They just feed off of their turnovers and points off of turnovers, so we’ll have to really work hard and see if we can go down there and operate the game in a successful manner.”
Much like teams used to do when they’d prepare for Kentucky and its “40 minutes of dread” defense for several seasons, UK has tried using more than five defenders at times in practice to simulate the Tigers’ terror.
“We’re definitely trying to turn up the heat and make them feel the heat as much as possible,” Mitchell said.
The coach was quick to point out, though, that he’s been pleased with how well players like Epps and point guard Taylor Murray have handled the heat this season.
And when teams are able to break the LSU press, they often get easy layups.
The Tigers (14-4, 3-2) are the worst in the league in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 42.1 percent from the field. In SEC games, opponents are shooting 49.4 percent against LSU.
“We have done a good job this year of attacking defenses that are aggressive and that’s the mindset,” said Mitchell, whose team will go to Auburn on Sunday. Those Tigers lead the league in turnovers forced at 24.1 a game.
“We have to go down there and not break the press but really attack it,” he continued. “You just have to try to be aggressive and make that play and really try to make them pay for playing that type of defense.”
News and notes
▪ There are lots of coaching connections within the SEC, but probably none more direct than the one UK will face in Baton Rouge on Thursday. Former Cats coach Mickie DeMoss, who was at UK from 2003-07, is a first-year assistant at LSU.
Both UK’s Mitchell and assistant coach Niya Butts worked for DeMoss at Kentucky, and Butts and fellow assistant Kyra Elzy played for her at Tennessee when DeMoss was an assistant coach there.
Kentucky’s other assistant coach, Lin Dunn, was DeMoss’s boss in the WNBA. The former UK head coach was an assistant for the Fever under Dunn the season Indiana won the WNBA championship.
▪ Kentucky will be without the services of reserve guard Jessica Hardin, who returned to the bench Sunday after missing the last five games with a concussion. Hardin will not make the trips to LSU or Auburn, Mitchell said.
“We feel really good that we can get her back in the foreseeable future,” Mitchell said. “This isn’t the time (for that) on the road. She still is not practicing while she’s improving.”
▪ Kentucky has lost 14 of its last 17 games and three in a row at LSU’s Pete Maravich Center. UK hasn’t won there since Jan. 28, 2010.
“There is nothing weird about the building or anything or any voodoo going on down there or anything like that,” Mitchell said Friday. “It is just they had really great teams, really quality teams and we have just come up short the last few times.”
Kentucky at LSU
When: 8 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 12-6 (3-2 SEC), LSU 14-4 (3-2)
Series: LSU leads 32-14
Last meeting: Kentucky won 79-71 on March 3, 2016, at the SEC Tournament in Little Rock, Ark.