Good morning, Big Blue Nation. March Madness is officially here as our Kentucky Wildcats will face off against the LSU Tigers in the SEC Tournament in about 11 hours or so. And if that does not get your blood pumping, well I don’t know what will. Much of the talk this week has been dominated by the “tweak” that John Calipari has promised for his Wildcats. Regardless of the tweak, Kentucky had better be ready for the Tigers as Johnny O’Bryant is ready for this game.
“Oh, man, I can’t wait. Can’t wait,” said LSU star Johnny O’Bryant III, who averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the two regular-season games against UK, which the teams split. “This is a big game. I like to play on big stages.”
The second-seeded Cats (22-9) struggled in both games against LSU (19-12). The Tigers bullied them on Jan. 28 in Baton Rouge, leading by 16 after less than six minutes and by 13 with 1:13 to go before UK hit four 3-pointers in 55 seconds to make the score respectable.
“I think we’ll be prepared for it” this time, said UK freshman Julius Randle, explaining that LSU gives the Cats trouble because it is a “long, athletic, very talented team. I think their team is better than what their record shows. They’re just a really good team. They match up with us well.”
The rematch in Rupp Arena on Feb. 22 went better, but UK still needed a fortunate bounce and Randle’s floater in the lane with three seconds left in overtime to escape with a 77-76 victory. There’s already a giant photo hanging outside the UK practice facility capturing the team’s celebration.
Coach Antigua handled the press duties for Coach Cal yesterday and he talked a bit about the matchup with this Tigers and this tweak thing.
On how much more difficult LSU is to stop when Shavon Coleman and Tim Quarterman hit shots: “Uh, a lot, a lot more difficult, particularly cause you’re going to get the production from Johnny (O’Bryant) and Jordan (Mickey), then those guards that are finding guys. You get those other guys contributing it makes it really difficult. You’ve got to pick your poison and hope they’re not on top of their game.”
On the level of confidence of UK players after two difficult games vs. LSU: “I think our confidence is going to be pretty good. I think that we can control our own emotions and what we do, and that’s what we’re going try to come out and do. Play hard, play together and try to make things difficult for them.”
On if the physical practices will help prepare for a physical team like LSU: “Well, we’ll see where we’re at with that. (Laughs). They are a physical team, and we have been trying to increase a little bit more in practice, how physical we play with each other and against each other. And we’ll see how that translates.”
On LSU having extra motivation, playing for their postseason lives: “I don’t know about their motivation. I know for our motivation we want to try to come out and play well and see if we can take care of business in the game that we have ahead of us and see where that can take us. At this point in the year, you’re playing any game and you’re done in your tournament, so you want to try to get some momentum going.”
On UK players’ demeanor coming out of practice this week: “Really good, really confident, really excited. So the staff is excited to see how we respond.”
On if ‘the tweak’ is in place: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
(You did that really well.) “It goes back to my Globetrotter days.”
On if the tweak will be a Globetrotter move: “That’s really good. No, no. I have no idea what you guys are talking about, seriously, this tweak.”
For the year, LSU is not a great three-point shooting team, hitting 34%. However, they went 11-22 last night against Alabama and Shavon Colemen was 5-9. The Tigers have hit their threes in both games against UK this year and their sudden hot streak is a bit disconcerting and something else UK has to control.
LSU hit 11 3-pointers in its win over Alabama, only adding to the concerns the Cats have going into Friday night.
The Tigers hit seven 3-pointers in each of the first two games against UK, but LSU isn’t a great 3-point shooting team numbers-wise. For the most part, the Tigers rely on their muscle inside, led by Johnny O’Bryant, who has averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his two games vs. the Cats this year.
“He’s really, really talented,” Antigua said. “Big, physical and skilled. Can shoot the ball out to 17 feet, catch and shoot, and rebounds and is athletic. So he’s a man. He’s a challenge. … He plays really well against us for whatever reason.”
Julius Randle hit a game-winning shot with seconds left to beat LSU in the matchup at Rupp Arena. (photo by Chris Reynolds)
Throw in 3-pointers like LSU made Thursday night and it becomes a “pick-your-poison” kind of game for UK.
“It’s pretty daunting when anybody shoots that well,” Antigua said. “I mean, the 3 obviously can be a really big game changer and we’re going to have to try to see if we can use our length to make it a little more difficult for them so they’re not as comfortable, match up quickly in transition, and find the shooters and try to play to our strengths.”
For whatever reason, LSU plays to its strength when it faces Kentucky. Asked why the Tigers give his team such problems, Antigua said it’s simple.
“They’re a good team,” he said. “They got good size, they got athleticism, they got veteran guards, they got some guys coming off the bench that are also really talented.”