John Clay

Kentucky-LSU on Tuesday will be a fun battle of the boards

Tuesday night’s Kentucky-LSU winner will be the team that eats the most glass.

That’s our bold prediction for the showdown between the two teams a game behind Tennessee in the SEC standings. We’re talking rebounding here. You know, board work. Grabbing missed shots off the glass. Second-chance points. All that good stuff.

As has been the case under John Calipari, UK knows how to rebound. In fact, the Cats rank fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage — a team’s number of offensive rebounds divided by that total plus the opposition’s defensive rebounds — at 38.3 percent, behind Portland State, Baylor and East Tennessee State. (Duke is fifth.)

An up-and-comer under second-year coach Will Wade, LSU can rebound, as well. The Tigers are ninth in the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 37.3 percent. They are second in the SEC, behind only the Cats. Something’s gotta give.

That’s one factor in what promises to be a fun Rupp Arena night. UK and LSU are both 9-1 in the SEC. (Tennessee is 10-0.) Kentucky is 20-3 overall. LSU is 19-4. UK is ranked fifth in the latest AP Top 25, LSU is 21st. Kentucky has won 10 straight games. LSU has won 12 of its last 13.

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EJ Montgomery has averaged 10 rebounds in Kentucky’s last two games. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

On Saturday, Kentucky nearly blew an 18-point lead before winning 71-67 at Mississippi State. Three days before, LSU rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to win 92-88 in overtime at Mississippi State.

In fact, this looks to be the best LSU team since Trent Johnson’s 2008-09 Tigers went 13-3 in the SEC. Actually, it might be the best since John Brady’s 2005-06 edition, led by Glen “Baby” Davis, crashed the Final Four. Or, maybe, we have to back up to Dale Brown’s Baton Rouge glory days.

Just 36 years old, Wade has the Tigers on the fast track. Formerly the head coach at Chattanooga and VCU, Wade went 18-15 in his first season at LSU. This year, the Tigers were 10-3 in the pre-conference schedule with losses to Florida State (79-76 in overtime), Oklahoma State (90-77) and Houston (82-76). FSU is currently ranked 21st. Houston is 12th.

Their lone league loss was by a single point at home to Arkansas, 90-89 on Feb. 2. Saturday, the Tigers fell behind 26-10 in the first half to Auburn, only to rally and beat Bruce Pearl’s Tigers 83-78 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Comebacks is LSU’s thing. Down 14 with 2:14 left in regulation, LSU beat Missouri 86-80 in overtime. Down 18 with 13:45 left, LSU lost to Arkansas by one. Victims of a 17-0 first-half Mississippi State run, it still beat the Bulldogs.

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LSU’s Naz Reid, right, pulled down an offensive rebound in front of Auburn’s Samir Doughty (10) and Chuma Okeke (5) on Saturday. Bill Feig AP

Having a terrific point guard helps. Sophomore Tremont Waters leads the team in scoring (15.7 points) and assists (6.1). He poured in 36 points in the Tigers’ 72-57 win at Texas A&M. He’s aided by 6-foot-11 freshman Naz Reid, who is averaging 13.9 points per game. Reid scored 29 points in the win at Mississippi State, then had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Auburn.

Oh yes, rebounds. Saturday’s standout stat: Behind 22 offensive rebounds, LSU dominated Auburn 29-1 in second-chance points. Paint points: LSU 38, Auburn 18. Pearl’s club sank a season-high 16 three-point shots, including 11 in the first half, and still couldn’t overcome the Tigers’ board dominance.

It’s not just Reid, who’s averaging 6.2 rebounds per game. Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-11 senior from England, has grabbed double-digit rebounds in six of LSU’s 10 SEC games, including three of the last four. He grabbed 13 rebounds at Mississippi State and 11 against Auburn. Emmitt Williams, a 6-7 freshman, is averaging 5.8 rebounds per game.

In other words, Kentucky-LSU on Tuesday looks to be strength on strength. The team that wins the rebounding battle wins the game.

Next game

No. 21 LSU at No. 5 Kentucky

7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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