#8 Louisiana St. (24-4, 12-1) has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, running away from the rest of the field to dominate the SEC. The Tigers are the only team that's managed to separate themselves from a mass of teams battling for second place, and to hold on to places in the NCAA Tournament, a group which includes the Tigers' opponent, #49 Kentucky (19-9, 8-5).
Kentucky has had an up-and-down season, beating West Virginia and Kansas St. to win the Las Vegas Invitational and starting SEC play 5-0, but also losing at Rupp Arena to VMI and going 3-5 since that hot conference start. The Wildcats really struggled against South Carolina on Wednesday, losing by 18 to give up the West Division lead. LSU has not lost in more than a month, and its only SEC loss came in its season opener against Alabama. This includes some solid wins at Tennessee and against Florida, but this trip to Lexington is probably the Tigers' toughest conference game of the season.
LSU's offense is an effective unit that depends on getting a lot of shot attempts; the Tigers are excellent offensive rebounders who rarely turn the ball over. They are the SEC's best outside shooters, but most of their attempts come from inside the arc, where they are only average. There's no area where they really struggle, but they'll be in tough against the SEC's best defense: Kentucky are as good at defending the paint as any team in the country, allowing opponents barely 40% from two-point range and blocking 17% of opponent attempts. The Wildcats are only average in the other facets of defense, but their interior domination is more than enough in many games. The big problem for Kentucky has been inconsistency: when opponents are able to make shots, as South Carolina and Vandy did recently, the Wildcat defense is in big trouble. In this game, LSU should have a clear possession advantage , so it will potentially be able to put a lot of points without shooting a great percentage, which is an even worse sign for Kentucky.
Much like the defense, Kentucky's offense is all about its play on the inside. The Wildcats make 54% of their attempts from two, and get to the free throw line quite often. When they do get to the line, Kentucky are excellent, making 78% of their foul shots, the best of any power conference team. It shoots the three decently, but has a lot of problems with turnovers, coughing the ball up nearly one out of every four possessions. LSU will matchup strength-to-strength against Kentucky's offense; it is one of the better interior defending teams in the country - not quite as good as the Wildcats, but still pretty good. The Tigers are also the SEC's best on the defensive glass, and hold opponents under 33% from behind the arc. The battle inside will be a critical one in this game, as LSU's defense has struggled against other teams that shoot well from two-point range, such as Florida and Tennessee.
Kentucky is about as close to a two-man team as you can find in major conference basketball, as junior Jodie Meeks and sophomore Patrick Patterson are clearly the driving forces behind the team's success. Meeks has exploded this season, showing the ability to score inside and outside, and getting to the line often, which combine to make him the nation's third-leading scorer. He takes a lot of shots, but that's not a bad thing when you've been as good as he has. Patterson missed a couple of games mid-month, but returned with a bang, including a 28-and-12 game on Wednesday evening. Patterson shoots 63% from the field, and is a major force on the glass, averaging nearly 9 rebounds a game. Michael Porter starts in the backcourt alongside Meeks, but doesn't do much offensively, an average shooter at best. The Wildcats boast a number of useful inside players besides Patterson, led by junior forward Perry Stevenson, a good scorer and rebounder who leads the team in shot-blocking. Ramon Harris has seen his minutes fluctuate wildly over the season, he's decent when he does shoot, but takes very few attempts. Freshmen Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins are decent rebounders who need to work on their shots; Liggens is a good ball distributor who leads the team in assists..
It hasn't seemed like there's been a lot of buzz around LSU's Marcus Thornton, but the senior guard is making a strong case to be the SEC's best player; Jodie Meeks may have had some bigger games, but Thornton has been the conference's most efficient scorer, combining great shooting with a low turnover rate. He's also a good free throw shooter and can chip in with a couple of steals per game. Tasmin Mitchell makes a great partner for Thornton on the inside, the 6-7 forward is a good scorer inside the arc who can explode for a big total in any given game, as he did in putting up 41 against Mississippi St. The rest of LSU's players don't tend to do a lot of scoring, but are good complements nonetheless. In the backcourt, Bo Spencer is the team's best three-point shooter, and the team's third leading scorer, while Garret Temple leads the team in assists and steals, and has a solid 2.0 A/TO ratio. 6-11 center Chris Johnson doesn't do much offensively, but is an excellent rebounder and shot-blocker who is key to the Tigers' success inside. Terry Martin and Quintin Thornton are the main options off the bench, but neither is particularly notable statistically.
I'm not totally convinced that LSU is as good as its record would suggest, but the Tigers are still the SEC's best team. The Tigers should be able to use their possession advantage to put up points on the Wildcats, but Kentucky's interior attack will be enough to get them an important victory.
Winner: Kentucky Margin: 2-6
Editor's Early Preview
*Made on 02/06. Full preview by the GameNight staff coming soon!
Jodie Meeks has obviously been in the national spotlight at times this year, and I have an inkling this nationally televised CBS game against LSU could bring out his best.
Early Prediction: UK