Derek Willis advances. Skal Labissiere recedes.
John Calipari provided that latest update Friday while reminding reporters of how fluid Kentucky’s roster has been this season.
Willis is on the uptick after missing the last three games because of a sprained ankle. Calipari was almost giddy in saying Willis practiced Thursday, actually “made shots” and will play against LSU on Saturday.
“Oh, yeah,” he said before adding, “I don’t think I’ll start him.”
Meanwhile, Labissiere, one of the revived UK “bigs” in the victory at Florida, has not practiced as well.
“He was not real good (Thursday),” Calipari said. “So I’m going to watch him (Friday). Whether I start him or not probably depends on what I see.”
Kentucky has been without a scholarship player in 22 of 30 games this season. The Cats have had every scholarship player available for three games: the victory over Ole Miss and losses at Kansas and Tennessee.
Among the various ailments that sidelined UK players were Alex Poythress’s knee injury (out five games), Tyler Ulis’ elbow (one game), Isaiah Briscoe’s ankle (one game), Dominique Hawkins’ broken hand and high ankle sprain (nine games) and Willis’ ankle (three games).
“We’ve been injured all year,” Calipari said. “I have to tell you, I haven’t heard anyone crying for Kentucky. As a matter of fact, I have not heard it mentioned.”
Although a native of Australia, LSU star freshman Ben Simmons has some familiarity with Rupp Arena’s “Cat-mosphere.”
“I’ve heard there’s great fan support in the arena,” Simmons said Thursday. “So I’m ready to get there.”
LSU has a 3-7 record in games away from home. But Coach Johnny Jones hoped a season of road games will prepare his players for Rupp.
“We’ve been in some loud arenas this year,” he said. “Arkansas and South Carolina have had tremendous crowds there. … Playing in the SEC, we have been fortunate enough to play in front of some raucous crowds.”
Ups and downs
LSU has had plenty of ups and downs this season. In the last five games, the Tigers have outscored opponents by a total of 30 points in the first halves and been outscored by 59 points in the second halves.
The lesson to be drawn?
“Just knowing we’re playing a top team and we can’t let up,” Simmons said. “That’s the mentality we have to have against everybody.”
Adversity is good
When he injured his right knee earlier this season, Alex Poythress said he took solace in his ability to deal with adversity.
“If I’ve learned anything in life, I learned you can’t get down on life,” he said. “Things happen for a reason. You’ve just got to move on with them and just fight through adversity.
“Everybody gets hit with adversity in life every day. You just have to learn to deal with things like that.”
Simmons had much the same philosophical take about LSU’s ups and downs this season.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect,” he said. “Ups and downs come with it. The adversity, I think, it’s helped us become better players and a better team.”
First UK-LSU game
LSU nearly led from start to finish in beating Kentucky 85-67 on Jan. 5. UK led for only 21 seconds.
“We did a good job of rebounding the basketball,” Jones said of LSU’s 46-32 rebound advantage. “That was one thing.”
UK has been outrebounded only nine times this season. That was the largest margin of defeat on the boards.
“We defended well early,” Jones said. UK made 41.4 percent of its shots, the fifth-worst accuracy of the season.
“Hopefully we’ll have a lot more energy tomorrow,” Poythress said of the rematch.
Jones cited one other factor. Freshman Aaron Epps’ eight points helped ease any anxiety about Simmons’ early foul trouble.
“We had a good second half . . . ,” Jones said. “That was important. It was a balanced game.”
Senior guard Keith Hornsby is not expected to play. He missed the season’s first seven games because of a sports hernia, and he’s missed the last three games. He will be missed.
Jones mentioned several areas when Hornsby’s absence will be felt. “You talk about the rotation, minutes played, what he was able to do on the offensive end of the floor, what he was able to bring to the team in terms of his leadership abilities on the floor, how hard he played,” the LSU coach said. “All of those things are key. Those are things you can’t substitute. . . . His hustle and all of the other variables that he would bring along for our team, that’s hard to replace.”
Couldn’t ask for more
With LSU fighting for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, Jones saw a game at Kentucky coming at an optimal time.
“It’s another tremendous opportunity for us . . . ,” he said. “We talk about chapters and how we want them to be written. Who are you playing? Could you ask for a better stage for us?”
Calipari called LSU another in a line of “desperate” teams that Kentucky must face.
“But I’m not worried about it,” he said. “Every team we play is. . . . It’s good for us. That’s what prepares us for March.”
Verne Lundquist and Jim Spanarkel will call the game for CBS.