In what is quickly becoming a favorite tradition in the Bluegrass, it’s time for another installment of “An opposing coach gives the scouting report” where – surprise, surprise – I call up a coach who has faced Kentucky’s next opponent and say “Hey man, would you mind giving me the scouting report you used against fill-in-the-blank team.” In exchange for complete anonymity, they usually oblige.
The scouting reports have become a fan favorite in recent years (or at least in my head they have), as Kentucky is now 7-0 in games in which I provide the reports. Most recently, I discussed how to beat Texas Tech, and before that was a scout against Arkansas and Georgia (although really, the Georgia scout should have just been “Let Tom Crean do his thing”). Last year, Kentucky also went 4-0 in games where I wrote up these reports.
(Go ahead and insert your own, “Man, John Calipari must read a lot of KSR” joke here).
Anyway with the mega-showdown with LSU just hours away here is what my buddy, who faced LSU earlier this season said, when I asked “How do you beat those Bayou Bengals?”
Play off LSU’s guards, let them freelance and let them beat themselves
In chatting with this coach, what stood out to me is that LSU is a team full of contrasts. On more than one occasion, the coach told me that “Outside of Kentucky, LSU has the most talent in the SEC.” Yet it’s clear both in watching them and talking to that coach that even now, 25 games into the season, the Tigers are still having trouble figuring out a way to make all that talent mesh.
Really their biggest issue though is that this team simply misses Tremont Waters.
We all remember Waters, the jitterbug point guard on last year’s SEC champs, a player who averaged not only a team-high 15 points per game, but also nearly six assists and three steals a season ago. Well with Waters gone, it seemed like the Tigers would simply plug in Javonte Smart in for him (Smart filled in admirably for Waters at times last season) and the engine would just keep on chugging along.
Unfortunately, Smart is more of a scoring guard than a distributor, and it shows. This season LSU has struggled to create within the flow of its offense, as one player after another (specifically Smart and Trendon Watford) continue to play one-on-one iso ball. And it continues to hurt this team.
“They just seem very selfish,” the coach said. “I’m only on the outside, but it seems like everyone is trying to get there’s.”
And while no one (neither myself or the coach) is blaming Smart, or anyone specifically for LSU’s struggles, the stats back up the coach’s claim. On the season, the Tigers are averaging more turnovers (13.1) than assists (12.9), and the four players who play the most minutes (Skylar Mays, Trendon Watford, Emmitt Williams and Smart) are all averaging at least two turnovers per game.
If there was ever a night for Ashton Hagans to sew up his second straight SEC Defensive Player of the Year award, this might be it.
The analytics say to let the Tigers shoot threes – although that can be a dangerous proposition
While the Tigers do have plenty of strengths (which we’ll get to in a minute) they have one glaring weakness besides an inability to take care of the ball.
That’s at the three-point line.
While LSU has had games where they get hot from behind the arc (they hit 11 in Saturday’s loss at Alabama) for the most part, they’re relatively abysmal from three-point land.
“They’re not a three-point shooting team,” the coach said. “They’re super streaky.”
Again, the numbers back that up, as on the season LSU is shooting just 31 percent from behind the arc, good for 278th in the nation entering the evening (although in the Tigers’ defense, Kentucky isn’t much better at 258th nationally), with Skylar Mays serving as the only guy who takes a lot of threes and also makes them at a reasonable clip (37.4 percent). Javonte Smart and Darius Days have both attempted over 100, and are hitting at less than 32 percent, while Trendon Watford is shooting just 26 percent, but still continues to take nearly two three-point attempts per game.
The coach does warn though that the Tigers can get hot, citing a game against Texas A&M where they hit 14, and last week’s Alabama game (where again, they hit 11) adding “if they are hitting shots, they can beat anybody in the country.”
Still, the numbers indicate that it’s OK to let the Tigers go wild from three. Chances are they won’t hit them.
Yet even if you let LSU shoot a bunch of threes…
You must crash the glass
And really, when Kentucky went over the scouting report against LSU over the last few days, this really should have been the number one bullet-point. Few teams, if any rebound the ball better than the Tigers do.
“Because they’re a not a good shooting team, they crash the glass hard,” the coach said. “They’ll send three or four guys to the glass on every shot, like they’re all going to offensive rebound.”
“Frankly, rebounding leads to their best offense.”
Put simply, the Tigers are one of the elite rebounding teams in the sport. They average close to 39 boards per game, with three different players – Williams, Days and Watford – all averaging over seven rebounds per contest (for comparison’s sake, there’s only one Kentucky player who averages even six boards per game – Nick Richards). They also rank No. 13 nationally in rebounding margin, grabbing over seven more rebounds per game than their opponents.
And really, it’s their rebounding which has, in a lot of ways, won the Tigers a bunch of games. Early in SEC play they rebounded their way to a win over Arkansas. In that game LSU beat the Razorbacks by two points, in a game in which they had 29 more rebounds than Arkansas, including a staggering 23 offensive rebounds. They also survived a 2 of 14 three-point shooting night against Florida by outrebounding the Gators by 10.
In terms of specific players, Days and Williams are the guys to watch out for. Days is one of the elite rebounders anywhere, averaging nearly 12 boards per 40 minutes per game played (one of the top marks in the country), while Williams is right behind him at 10 boards per 40 minutes played.
For Williams, the reasoning is simple. With guards that aren’t feeding him the ball, he knows it’s the only way he’s going to get his points.
“They don’t look for him, they don’t run offense for him, the coach said. “Other than a lob here or there, hitting on a roll, he’s setting the ball screen. So his points come from getting offensive rebounds, getting second chances.”
Don’t let Skylar Mays beat you
If crashing the glass and not giving up second chance opportunities is the No. 1 priority for Kentucky, No. 2 simply has to be “slow down Skylar Mays.”
We’ve spent a good chunk of the space above discussing what LSU doesn’t do well, and the inconsistencies caused because of it. Yet none of that really applies to Mays, who is not only a star on the court, but a literal genius off of it, carrying a 4.1 GPA as he studies to become a doctor. No seriously.
Meaning that in this season of inconsistency, one where the Tigers throw away possessions like trash on garbage day and jack up bad shots like they get a “huge ass” payment for every missed three (see what I did there?), Mays is the one consistent for Will Wade. Mays is LSU’s beacon of hope, the one guy Wade knows he can count on.
“With him, he’s such a high feel player, he’s such a high IQ player, he just knows the game,” the coach said. “He just does everything well, he defends well, he’s just the most complete player on the team.”
Mays is also again, the one player that Wade knows he can count on night in and night out. On the season he is not only the team’s leading scorer (at nearly 17 points per game), but is also their best foul shooter (85 percent) and most consistent player from behind the arc as well (37 percent).
At this point it’s probably unfair to expect any team – even Kentucky – to slow Mays down. But you can’t let him beat you either, and the goal for the Wildcats has to be to get the ball out of his hands, and force others (Smart, Watford etc.) to beat them.
Finally, just know that against LSU – no lead is safe for either team
If there is one theme I’d like for you to take out of this article, it’s that umm, while LSU is insanely talented, they’re also insanely inconsistent. When you turn the ball over as much as they do, and can have games where you hit 11 or 12 three-pointers (like they did Saturday against Alabama) but also games where you hit just one or two (as they’ve done multiple times this year) it means that no lead is safe for either team.
Seriously, I can’t think of a single team who can give up a 15-point lead as easily, or make up a 15-point lead when they fall behind LSU quite like the Tigers can.
And that’s not hyperbole. Here are some of their results from this season:
- LSU overcame an 18-point second half deficit at Alabama on Saturday, only for the Crimson Tide to hold on in the final few seconds for a win
- LSU was also up 19 points in the second half against Utah State back in November – and ended up losing by two points to the Aggies in the final seconds (ironically, it’s a win which might get Utah State an at-large berth)
- LSU was up six with a minute to go at Auburn – and lost in overtime
- LSU was down seven with five minutes to go against Mississippi State – and won on a buzzer beater
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
It’s important to know that when it comes to the Wildcats game against LSU tonight, no lead is safe against the Tigers – for either team.
If Kentucky gets a lead, they better hold on for dear life.
Do that, and they will have another big win under their belt, one that will help their chase of an SEC regular season title and top seed in the NCAA Tournament.