Showtime. Kentucky, leading the SEC heading into the second half of February, goes to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers.
By Matt Zemek
The landscape of the SEC has certainly shifted over the past few weeks. LSU has lost multiple games. Auburn suffered a bad loss to Missouri. Kentucky now leads the conference, which is the good news for Big Blue. The bad news – or at least the “not so good” news – for John Calipari’s team is that UK is in first place mostly because its competitors have fallen, not because the Wildcats have reached a high new level with their play.
Kentucky might benefit against LSU from a mediocre performance from the Tigers, but the Wildcats can’t count on that, especially on the road. Kentucky now enters a new portion of its SEC season in which it needs to put the boot on opponents’ throats and not wait for opponents to falter late in regulation, as Vanderbilt and Ole Miss have done so much this season. LSU is not Vanderbilt or Ole Miss. The Tigers won the SEC championship last year, and Kentucky needs to take that title belt away from the Bayou Bengals in a primetime showdown.
1 – Ashton Hagans
Sorry if this is repetitive, folks, but we have to keep saying it: When Ashton Hagans puts together complete two-way performances, Kentucky will become the best team it can possibly become. Kentucky moved to the Elite Eight last year as a No. 2 seed because Hagans was such a terror on defense (which he still is) and didn’t hijack the team’s offense. This year, Hagans has often been lost at the offensive end of the floor. The frustrating thing about Hagans’ offensive performances is that with Nick Richards in the post and Immanuel Quickley on the perimeter, Hagans doesn’t need to force the action on offense. Yet, he often has, and he has gotten in the way of what this team wants to do. If Hagans can provide addition by subtraction – reducing mistakes and not trying to look for his own offense – this team can grow. A clean game from Hagans is more important than a stat-sheet-stuffing game from Hagans.
2 – 3-point shooting
Kentucky doesn’t need to shoot the cover off the ball, but the Wildcats do have to shoot at a respectable clip from long range. They can’t put up the awful numbers they displayed against Ole Miss. They also need to know that LSU – when the Tigers have been at their best – defends the 3-point line well. Both teams would probably be fine if 3-point shooting was a wash and didn’t have an especially large impact on this game, but if one team gets smoked in this particular category, it will likely prove to be decisive.
3 – Offensive rebounding
LSU’s surge to an 8-0 record in the SEC, before losing three games in recent weeks, was built on the strength of a few key components, one of them being offensive rebounds. Nick Richards needs to box out on the defensive glass and grab the key offensive boards he grabbed late in the Louisville win. This is another central battleground in Baton Rouge.