LSU Basketball Takes Its Crack At Kentucky

In the long history of LSU basketball, their biggest win over Kentucky came in the regional finals of the 1986 NCAA Tournament. The undermanned Tigers, coached by master motivator Dale Brown, stunned the favored Wildcats and reached the Final Four as an 11-seed, unprecedented at the time and matched in future years only by George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth. Tonight’s LSU-Kentucky game (7 PM ET, ESPN) from Baton Rouge won’t match that, but it could take over the #2 spot.

Kentucky’s pursuit of the first undefeated season and national championship since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers is the biggest story in college basketball. LSU is a bubble team in the push for the NCAA Tournament and desperately needs marquee wins. The elements are in place for a max effort from the underdog and a packed house going crazy, but do the Tigers have enough for a victory?

LSU is built on good defense and excellent rebounding. They rank 34th in the nation in defensive efficiency—not spectacular, but pretty good for a bubble team. The Tigers have two sophomores down low, Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, that clean up the glass hard and each can score. Mickey & Martin, the Baton Rouge version of the M&M Boys combine to average 33 points/20 rebounds per night.
The perimeter players all contribute, with Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman each averaging double figures and Josh Gray averaging four assists per game. But the problem is that no one shoots the three-ball very well. It’s why LSU is only 94th in the nation in offensive efficiency.
LSU’s advantage tonight is that Kentucky doesn’t shoot the three very well either, although Aaron Harrison showed us in last year’s NCAA Tournament run that he can get hot from out there. But if the ‘Cats don’t shoot the three, and LSU doesn’t turn the ball over in the face of that wave of nine Big Blue players attacking, the game can be close. And that can give the home team the chance for an upset.
This advantage though, is also LSU’s disadvantage. If each team is going to play a similar style, wouldn’t you naturally default to the one who has a demonstrated ability to do it a much higher level? It would seem that to upset Kentucky you have to be a different type of team and force them out of the comfort zone.
As far as tonight goes, I don’t think anyone can force Kentucky out of their comfort zone, though I make the usual caveats about this being the kind of atmosphere that will invite a big effort from the home underdog. I won’t be shocked if there’s an upset, and I’d probably take LSU with the (+10.5) points being offered at the window, but not to win outright.

What I’m more interested in from LSU’s standpoint is whether this Tiger team can make the NCAA Tournament. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi presently has LSU in the field, at a #11 seed, the very definition of the bubble.
LSU’s overall record is 17-6, but they have some notable bad losses on their resume. Within conference play, they’ve lost to bad teams in Missouri, Mississippi State and Auburn. Outside the league, they’ve dropped games to Clemson and Old Dominion—neither team is bad, they are games you should at least split. Especially when the only marquee victory on the slate right now is at West Virginia. It’s a nice win, but it’s asking a lot to argue your way into the NCAA Tournament based solely on that.
The SEC is currently packed with bubble teams behind Kentucky. Lunardi has five other conference teams making the field. Arkansas is fairly safe for the time being at a 6-seed. Georgia is an 8-seed. Then you go to Texas A&M on the 10-line and LSU at 11. Tennessee and Florida are not currently on the field nor among the first eight teams to miss, but their records are good enough that a February run to contention is reasonable.
What that means is that LSU needs to find a way to separate itself. After tonight, they go to Tennessee on Saturday, to Texas A&M next Tuesday and host Florida on the Saturday after that. It’s a decisive stretch for the Tigers. When your resume is crying out for a marquee win though, nothing would be bigger than to stop Kentucky’s unbeaten season in Baton Rouge tonight.