Kentucky’s game here Tuesday night seemed like a referendum on LSU Coach Johnny Jones.
Going into the game, his Tigers were widely viewed as underachievers. An 8-5 record and arguably college basketball’s best player, Ben Simmons, emboldened critics.
A UK victory, especially by a lopsided margin, would reinforce the thumbs-down view of Jones’ coaching. But by winning, LSU would have begun league play with victories over two of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference within a four-day period.
All more idle speculation than incisive analysis, said Jay Bilas, who worked the game telecast for ESPN.
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“I’m not at all worried that this is a coaching issue,” he said of the start to LSU’s season. “I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, boy, they’re not telling these guys to defend and rebound.’
“I’m pretty sure they are. That comes down to players doing it. They are not a good basketball team. They’re OK. But they’re not really good.”
It didn’t help any that LSU was without two starters for the first seven games. In his first game back from sports hernia surgery, guard Keith Hornsby scored a career-high 32.
Craig Victor, a native of New Orleans and a transfer from Arizona, started playing in LSU’s ninth game. He was averaging 13.4 points going into the Kentucky game.
“I think coaches in college get way too much credit,” Bilas said. “And as a result, they take too much blame.”
Former LSU coach Dale Brown defended Jones, who once played for him and later served on his staff. Brown cited the example of John Wooden.
Before Wooden won the first of what would be 10 national championships, a sportswriter saw him as anything but a Wizard of Westwood. “John Wooden stands on the brink of being a has-been,” the writer wrote, Brown said.
Brown also cited how UK once fired a football staff that included such soon-to-be luminaries as Blanton Collier, Don Shula, Howard Schnellenberger and Bill Arnsparger.
“There’s your answer,” Brown said.
Duke-North Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville are celebrated series in college basketball. The same goes for Alabama-Auburn and Michigan-Ohio State in football.
But Brown said there is another series that deserves similar attention and celebration.
“This Kentucky-LSU series really doesn’t get the national credit it deserves,” the former LSU coach said.
Brown rattled off several UK-LSU games that belong in any collection of stranger-than-fiction stories.
In 1977-78, LSU beat eventual national champion Kentucky in Baton Rouge despite all five starters fouling out.
In 1985-86, Kentucky beat LSU three times, then LSU won in the NCAA Tournament Southeast Region finals.
In 1986-87, LSU gave Kentucky its most-lopsided loss in Rupp Arena (76-41).
In 1994-95, Kentucky returned the favor by handing Brown his most-lopsided loss in 25 seasons coaching LSU (127-80).
In 1993-94, the Mardi Gras Miracle. Kentucky rallied from 31 points down in the final 16 minutes and won 99-95.
“I wonder if there could be anything more bizarre,” Brown said of the Kentucky-LSU series.
Brown lamented that the teams have played only once each regular season since the SEC expanded in 1991-92. “Really watered down the league,” he said of the end of round-robin, home-and-home scheduling.
Kentucky and LSU play twice this season. The rematch will be March 5, which will be UK’s Senior Day.
Dominique Hawkins did not play. He is still recovering from an ankle sprain he sustained against Ole Miss last weekend.
Hawkins may not play this coming weekend at Alabama.
Almost a Cat?
Kentucky offered Ben Simmons a scholarship. He declined.
“I committed (to LSU) so quickly, it was kind of hard for them to recruit me,” he said. “After I committed, they backed off. . . . I only took one visit. That was LSU.”
Hornsby missed a potential game-winning shot against UK last season. He needed no help in remembering the moment.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “Coach (Jones) drew up a play. It was executed, but it was a tough look. It looked on line for a second, but then I knew it was long.
“Aaron Harrison was guarding me, and he did touch my elbow. There’s a picture of him touching me (on the elbow). But in a tight game like that, I didn’t expect that call. If they called it, there would have been a huge uproar across the nation.
“Yeah, I missed the shot, but it’s still an amazing memory.”
Two former All-Americans attended the game: Anthony Davis of UK and Durand “Rudy” Macklin of LSU.
Jim Hawthorne, the radio voice of LSU basketball since 1982-83 season, called his final LSU-Kentucky game.
Going into the game, he had called 18 of LSU’s 25 victories against UK.
Former LSU player Ricky Blanton has been Hawthorne’s radio partner for seven seasons.