If you thought Kentucky playing North Carolina and at Louisville in an eight-day period in December was challenging, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Ditto for Kentucky playing at Auburn, then hosting Mississippi State and Kansas in another eight-day stretch about a month later.
Of UK playing No. 19 LSU on Tuesday and then No. 1 Tennessee four days later, John Calipari said, “This is going to be a harder set of games.”
LSU, which is tied with Kentucky for second place in the Southeastern Conference, has size up front and experience in the backcourt.
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“This is going to be a hard one, believe me,” Calipari said. “A hard game for us to win. I don’t care if it’s in Rupp Arena or (on) I-95. This is a hard game to win because of how they play.
“But if we can give a full 40 (minutes), it should be a terrific ball game.”
Although UK defeated North Carolina and Louisville, then swept Auburn, Mississippi State and Kansas, Calipari suggested his team is much better prepared to play LSU and Tennessee.
“If we played them a month ago, then it would probably have been ugly,” he said. “Now, at least we’ve got a chance when we’re coming together ourselves.”
More than once on Monday LSU Coach Will Wade used the words “different animal” to describe the challenge presented by Kentucky.
He cited offensive rebounding, guarding the three-point line and making steals as key to LSU’s record of 19-4 (9-1 in the SEC). “Basically, we made it into two-point games …,” he said. “Now, it’s going to be a little bit different animal tomorrow.”
LSU had lost nine straight “true” road games until winning 94-88 at Arkansas on Jan. 12. That started a streak of five straight victories in “true” road games.
After pointing out that three of those victories required an overtime, Wade said, “Rupp Arena will be rocking, and Kentucky is going to make some great plays. … We’re going to have to play by far our best game of the season tomorrow night to give ourselves a chance.”
LSU can match UK’s four “bigs.” After his team lost 83-78 to LSU, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl referred to senior Kavell Bigby-Williams (6-11, 250) and freshman Naz Reid (6-10, 250) as “two monsters.”
Of his four big men, Wade said, “We’re going to need those guys to step up. This will be a different animal.”
Calipari has repeatedly told players to be prepared to shoot before receiving the ball. The game at Mississippi State showed how exceptions can be made to this rule.
With a 18-point UK lead down to 65-61 and barely three minutes left, Tyler Herro improvised a shot when a loose ball found its way into his hands. Afterward, both teams said the three-pointer was crucial to the outcome.
“It just bounced off PJ’s hands,” Herro said of the loose ball. “I didn’t really have a choice but to shoot because of the shot clock. So I took one dribble and made the shot.”
Calipari turned 60 years old on Sunday.
“I’ve had, maybe, 50 messages saying, ‘It’s only a number,’” he said. “So I guess it’s only a number. I don’t know. …
“You know, I feel good. Feel good about my team. Been blessed. Healthy, somewhat. Great eating habits.”
That last observation drew laughs.
When a reporter asked Immanuel Quickley how old 60 seemed to him, the UK player paused before answering.
“Uh, 60,” he said before laughing. “Sixty. Hoping he can keep going. Hopefully, he can get another 60. That’s all I can say about that one.”
LSU swept the SEC’s weekly awards. The league named point guard Tremont Waters its Player of the Week and forward Naz Reid its Freshman of the Week.
This marked the first time a team swept the SEC’s weekly awards since Jan. 2, 2017. On that date, the SEC named UK’s Isaiah Briscoe as Player of the Week and Malik Monk as Freshman of the Week. Briscoe shared Player of the Week recognition with Georgia’s Yante Maten.
Waters averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 assists, five steals and 3.5 rebounds in victories at Mississippi State and against Auburn.
Reid averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds in those two games.
Former Indiana star and UCLA Coach Steve Alford attended UK’s practice. He’s not staying for the game, Calipari said, “I’m known him for 30 years. Great guy. Terrific coach.” … Karl Ravech, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Laura Rutledge will call the game for ESPN.