Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere’s recent improvement caught the eye of Texas A&M glue-guy Alex Caruso.
“They’re extremely talented,” Caruso said of the Cats on Friday. “The big kid, Skal, is starting to play good, which kind of scares me because he is something of an X-factor for them.”
As the term X-factor suggests, Labissiere gives Kentucky an element of surprise in a sport that prizes routine and execution.
“Because you know what you’re going to get from (Tyler) Ulis,” Caruso said. “You know what you’re going to get from (Isaiah) Briscoe and (Jamal) Murray.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
“(Labissiere) playing good kind of puts them at an elite level.”
Caruso, who spoke after A&M outlasted Florida 72-66 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals, said that Labissiere’s increased production (14.5 ppg and 8.5 rpg) in last week’s games makes Ulis more effective.
“Tyler Ulis coming off a ball screen, you can hold and stay with him so he can’t just probe and shoot,” Caruso said. “If Skal is knocking down the shots he’s knocking down, you can’t hold as long. That frees up (Ulis) so much more. He’s already talented enough. You can’t give him any more room.
“That’s the scary part.”
Texas A&M has experience in playing three games in three days, which is the minimum requirement for winning the SEC Tournament. The Aggies did that in the Bahamas Thanksgiving week, beating Texas and Gonzaga, then losing to Syracuse.
“We know what to expect fatigue-wise and emotion-wise,” Caruso said. “It’s tough. It’s tough-tough-tough.”
Texas A&M did not have an easy time of it beating Florida. It was a two-point game inside the final 30 seconds.
“We just grinded out a victory against Florida, and they are supposed to be the No. 8-ranked team in our league,” Caruso said. “Then, in less than 24 hours, we play again against another good team in our league (LSU).”
The loss dropped Florida’s record to 19-14 and made a bid to the NCAA Tournament seem unlikely. The Gators’ record against ranked teams fell to 1-7.
When asked about the postseason, Florida Coach Mike White said, “I’m not going to go there with what happens next. I think our administration has done a great job with putting together what the committee wants to see, and that’s a high-level schedule. . . .
“Wherever we’re sent, we’ll be excited to play, or we’ll find the right guys that are excited to play.”
After the loss, center John Egbunu spoke in a hopeful tone about the Gators getting an NCAA Tournament bid.
Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith had a more sober outlook. “You get what you deserve,” he said.
LSU, which is perceived as an under-achieving team, came to the SEC Tournament with an NCAA Tournament bid in mind.
Step one was beating a game, but tired, Tennessee team 84-75.
“We knew if we lost today, there is no tomorrow,” LSU forward Craig Victor said. “We knew it was urgent that we win.”
When asked what LSU (19-13) needed to do here to secure an NCAA Tournament bid, Victor said, “I don’t really know that. At the same time, we’re just trying to win the tournament. We came here to win a tournament, and that’s what we’re on a mission to do.”
Larry Conley, who was one of Rupp’s Runts, was UK’s representative in the SEC Legends promotion.
“It’s great for Kentucky,” he said of the promotion. “I’m not so sure it’s great for Mississippi State or Ole Miss or Auburn.”
Conley wondered if some other programs have enough “legends” to keep the promotion going. Of course, Kentucky does.
“They could go on for the next 30 years,” Conley said. “It wouldn’t be a problem.”
For some other SEC programs, “it’s just a matter of finding enough quality players to put out there,” Conley said. “You don’t want to get to the point where you’ve got a guy who averaged three points and three assists.”
▪ Doug Sirmons, the referee who ejected UK Coach John Calipari at South Carolina, is working at the Big 12 Conference Tournament. All leagues use what are known as “primary” officials in conference tournaments.
▪ LSU freshman Antonio Blakeney made nine of nine free throws in the victory over Tennessee. That extended his streak of made free throws to 28.