7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kentucky -9, Over/Under: 149
A key SEC battle is on tap from Lexington, as the Fifth-Ranked Kentucky Wildcats play host to the Nineteenth-Ranked LSU Tigers in a matchup that figures to break the deadlock for Second Place in the improving conference. Don’t look now, folks, but LSU (19-4, 9-1 in SEC) is coming on hard and fast, winning twelve out of their last thirteen games, as they threaten to break up the duopoly that has been Tennessee/Kentucky in the Southeast Conference this season. In just his second year with the program, Will Wade has the Tigers well ahead of schedule, already surpassing the eighteen victories that the registered a year ago, with an eye firmly fixated on returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. After a stellar two-year stay at Virginia Commonwealth, in which he guided the Rams to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and an Atlantic-10 Regular Season Title, Wade clearly looks like he’s ready for grander things, which has been evident in his recruiting practices at Louisiana State. With a rotation that goes nine-deep, the Bayou Bengals sport four different players averaging in double-figures, led by the diminutive dynamo Tremont Waters (15.7 PTS, 44.1% FG, 34.2% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 6.1 AST, 3.0 STL, 22.1 PER) at Point Guard, and versatile Freshman Naz Reid (13.9 PTS, 49.8% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.0 BLK, 21.8 PER) at Power Forward. A Sophomore, Waters has been a pest on the defensive end all year thus far, and serves as the engine for the Offense, while Reid packs plenty of size in the painted area, while also being able to step outside and stretch defenses from the perimeter. This two are coming off a huge week in which the former was selected SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.5 Points, 3.5 Rebounds, and 4.0 Steals in wins over the likes of Mississippi State (92-88) and Auburn (83-78), while the latter was branded SEC Freshman of the Week for posting averages of 21.0 Points and 9.5 Rebounds in those same contests, including a career-high Twenty-Nine Points against the Bulldogs.
When we last saw them, the Tigers continued to exhibit the habit of living dangerously, rallying back from a double-digit deficit for the fourth time in their last five outings on their way to besting Auburn in a rousing 83-78 affair. The hosts got off to yet another slow start, missing six of their first seven Three-Pointers in route to falling behind by Sixteen Points, but managed to turn the tables on the strength of their towering bigs, Kavell Bigby-Williams (7.8 PTS, 69.3% FG, 6.0 REB, 0.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.9 BLK, 25.8 PER), and Oregon Transfer, and the aforementioned Reid, and swarming defense. LSU scored a whopping Thirty-One Points off of Nineteen Auburn Turnovers, while Bigby-Williams and Reid absolutely had their way with the visiting side, combining for Twenty-Points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field (56.3%), Twenty-One Rebounds (11 Offensive), a Steal, and a Block. As a team, Wade’s charges bullied their smaller counterparts, outrebounding them 44-33, including 19-7 on the offensive glass, and dismantling them 38-18 in the Paint and scoring Twenty-Nine Second-Chance Points. Furthermore, their defense really tightened up in the Second Half, where they limited the Tigers to just Five Threes after relinquishing eleven in the First Half. Now it’s on to No. 5 Kentucky, where we imagine Wade would love to flip the script and NOT fall into a sizable early deficit, for one can only tempt fate so many times before it answers. LSU hasn’t tasted victory in Lexington since 2009, and have gone 2-6 against the Wildcats since the 2013-2014 campaign, including a narrow 71-74 defeat last year at Maravich Assembly Center.
Meanwhile, after a subpar 2017-2018 season (at least by their standards), we’re about to see just how formidable this Kentucky (20-3, 9-1 in SEC) really is. Joh Calipari has been beating the drums all week, as his Wildcats venture into arguably the most crucial period of their schedule, for after tonight’s meeting with No. 19 LSU, in which they’ll attempt to break the tie for Second Place in the league, is the first of two meetings with top-ranked Tennessee. Coach Cal has always prided his young charges on their ability to mature as the season progresses, with this particular Southeastern Two-Step serving as an ideal litmus test. Starting off with the upstart Tigers, who despite owning a 6-2 record against over the past five years, have played the ‘Cats extremely close, with all but two of those encounters being decided by single digits, including three that were decided by three points or less. Winners of ten straight outings, they’ve feasted on their SEC brethren since stumbling in their league opener at Alabama (75-77), enjoying an average 13.9 Point Differential in conference play. During that stretch they even took a time out from SEC competition to hand then No. 9 Kansas a decisive 71-63 defeat, their second victory over a Top-10 opponent this year. Defense has been this team’s selling point thus far, for the Wildcats rank tops in the Southeast Conference in Points Allowed (60.3), Field Goal Percentage Allowed (38.9%), Two-Point Field Goal Percentage Allowed (43.1%), Free-Throws Allowed (10.4), Assists Allowed (9.6), an Rebounding Margin (Plus-7.0). In that aforementioned battle of blue bloods, they smothered the Jayhawks, limiting them to just Sixty Points on 36.5% shooting from the field, including 35.0% inside the arc, outrebounding them 47-35 (15-9 on the offensive glass), and permitting a scant Nine Assists. Three different plyers logged a Double-Double, featuring P.J. Washington (14.2 PTS, 51.3% FG, 44.9% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.1 BLK, 25.9 PER), Keldon Johnson (14.0 PTS, 48.4% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.5 PER), and Reid Travis (11.7 PTS, 52.2% FG, 26.3% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.8 BLK, 20.8 PER), accounting for Fifty-Three Points and Thirty-Five Rebounds.
When we last saw them, the Wildcats barely escaped a 71-67 victory at Mississippi State, nearly squandering a healthy 40-25 lead at Halftime, that was as great as Eighteen Points early in the second period. In fact, this affair with the Bulldogs was merely a one-possession game with 1:18 remaining on the clock, before the visitors’ typically staunch defense stepped in to snuff out the comeback effort despite relinquishing Forty-Two Points in the Second Half. The aforementioned Washington led the Wildcats with Twenty-Three Points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field (69.2%), the fifth time out of the last six games in which he topped Twenty, including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc (100.0%), along with Three Rebounds, an Assist and a Block. Johnson added Thirteen Points on 4-of-10 shooting from the floor (40.0%), including 1-of-3 from downtown (33.3%), with Seven Rebounds and a Steal, while Tyler Herro (13.3 PTS 45.9% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.0 PER) chipped in with Twelve Points on 5-of-9 shooting (55.6%), including 2-of-4 from three (50.0%), the second of which came at crucial moment with less than three minutes left to play. As a team, Calipari’s charges shot 47.4% overall, including 7-of-18 from long range (38.9%), and dished out Thirteen Assists in comparison to just Nine Turnovers, while owning a slimmer margin on the boards than they’re used to (Plus-6). The Bulldogs found it difficult to move the ball with any fluidity throughout the affair, registering just Seven Assists opposed to committing Nine Turnovers, having to rely on the money ball to get them back into the game (7-of-16 3FG, 43.8%).
Predicted Outcome: Kentucky 78, LSU 74