There comes a time in every season where the outcome of a game has vast implications for a team's future. Today is such a time for Kentucky, and the implications are 100% negative. What I mean by that is that there is absolutely nothing to advance Kentucky's position in the college basketball ecosphere, but a loss might well condemn them to an NIT berth, as losing to the LSU Tigers at home would be a singular, and tragic black mark against a Kentucky team that has been very shaky in SEC play.
You hate to run into games like this, but they seem to happen periodically -- no carrot, and all stick. However, the Wildcats have no excuse to offer for this -- they have failed to close out winnable games so often this year, and at such awkward times, that they have almost reached a "win or go home" situation. Not totally, but this game looks to me like as such a game, although that may be somewhat overstating the case. It's easy to fall into that trap in a year like this.
Here's how the teams have faired so far this year, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||LSU||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#151||#55|
|RPI Top 50||0-3||0-3|
LSU Tigers Roster
|55||Andrew Del Piero||S||C||7-3||254||SR||4.7||56.4||3.2||0.1||0.1||1.4|
|2||Johnny O'Bryant III||S||F||6-9||262||SO||11.1||48.1||7.9||1.0||0.4||0.6|
O'Bryant is the big boy for LSU. He isn't the leading scorer for the team, but he does it all -- scoring, rebounding, defending. He's a strong presence in the interior and gets most of his work done near the basket. He's as athletic and strong a post player as Kentucky has faced all year, and LSU's leading rebounder at 7.9 per game.
Kentucky native Anthony Hickey is the motor that makes LSU run. He's second in the nation in steals rate at 7.1% of possessions, and that spells trouble for Kentucky's schizophrenic backcourt of Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin. Hickey is also an average 3-point shooter, but in front of friends, family, and a school that ignored him as a recruit, I'd be concerned he might have the game of his life.
Shavon Coleman is the leading scorer, coming off the bench much like Kyle Wiltjer does for Kentucky He's an average perimeter shooter at best, so he'll get most of his points slashing to the basket and using his athleticism. He is also an outstanding rebounder for his size at 7.8 per game.
Reserve guard Andre Stringer is a little guy at 5'9", but he is a deadly 3-pont shooter at 39% and the go-to perimeter guy for the Tigers. 7'3" Andrew Del Piero is a shot-blocking threat, but he is extremely raw and doesn't see a lot of minutes.
Four Factors Analysis
Kentucky is better in every statistic but rebounding, which should not be a surprise.
LSU is extremely small and quick in the backcourt, and this is both good and bad. It will likely give Kentucky's backcourt fits on defense, but offensively, they are going to have to work very hard to get shots, and when they do, Nerlens Noel will be looming in the paint. I would not be at all surprised to see Noel reach double-digits in shot blocks today. My understanding is that Willie Cauley-Stein is unlikely to play today.
Offensively, LSU has struggled to score all year, and especially so in conference. They are averaging only 0.87 points per possession in league, and ugly number. Their effective FG shooting comes in at only 42.7%, last in the SEC, and their 3-point percentage is next to last at 28.8%.
Defensively, LSU just doesn't. They are last in the SEC in 2-point shooting defense, allowing opponents to shoot over 50% from close in. From the arc, they are a little better, allowing 31.2%. LSU rarely gets to the line, and despite not being able to shoot threes very well, shoots quite a few of them anyway, likely because they just struggle to score inside (13th in 2-point% in the SEC).
Folks, this is a young and not very good LSU team, and a team that UK should beat by 20 or more if they are playing well, which is a good way to measure the effectiveness of Kentucky, and whether or not Calipari is making any progress at all with this team. If LSU beats the 17 point spread, you should probably worry. If Kentucky wins by 30, that's a good sign. In between those extremes lies the disturbing muddle that has been this year's version of the Wildcats.
A loss to LSU would cripple the team in so many ways, I don't want to think about it. But you cannot rule it out. If TAMU can come in here and have a player light Kentucky up for 40, that cold happen again. Nobody fears UK now, and for good reason. Maybe today the 'Cats will give them a reason to fear. Let's hope so.