If there was ever a time for one of the worst teams in the conference to show up on the Kentucky Wildcats’ schedule, I think I’d pick tonight. No spoilers here, but the Cats are reeling. They’ve three of their last four games, and the one win took a heroic effort from Malik Monk to beat an average Georgia team in overtime.
The LSU Tigers laugh in the face of Cats’ fans who say the Cats have been struggling. Johnny Jones’ bunch is 9-13 on the season. The Tigers are currently on a 9 game losing streak and have lost 11 of their last 12 games. Their 1-9 record in SEC play is tied for last place in the conference, but they do have the tiebreaker advantage, having already defeated fellow cellar dweller Missouri.
So which team picks up the much needed victory tonight? Let’s take a look at the potential starting lineup for Johnny Jones tonight. Jones has tinkered with the starters a bunch this year, and his lineup seems to change on a game by game basis, with 10 players starting at least one game this year.
#2 Antonio Blakeney, Sophomore Guard, 6’4″
Antonio Blakeney was “the other guy” in one of LSU’s best recruiting classes in recent memory, alongside future number 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. Blakeney was a top-15 ranked recruit by most services and was one of the best shooting guards in the class of 2015. More famously, he and his guardian were two of the specific names identified in Katina Powell’s book about the stripper/hooker scandal at the University of Louisville. At one point, Blakeney was even committed to Katina Powell and Rick Pitino before reopening his recruitment and heading to Baton Rouge.
The sophomore guard had a really solid freshman season despite what was going on a few hundred miles north in Louisville. In the two games against UK, he combined for 25 points and 4 rebounds. This season, he is LSU’s best player and leading scorer. He’s averaging 15.6 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. He’s a volume shooter, taking over 13 shots per game, but he’s still managing to hit over 35% of his attempts from three point land.
Blakeney will probably draw the defensive assignment of either Isaiah Briscoe or Malik Monk in tonight’s game. His scoring ability leads me to think that Briscoe will start out on him, but with how absurdly horrendous the defensive effort has been from four of the five players on the floor at all times for the Cats lately, I could see Cal going with any of the three guards to attempt to locate a stopper on this team.
#1 Duop Reath, Junior Forward, 6’10”
Duop Reath spent his first two seasons playing for Lee College, a community college in Baytown, Texas. Reath was born in South Sudan before his family moved to Australia when he was 9 years old to avoid the dangers of the civil war going on in Sudan. Reath didn’t play basketball until he was a high schooler, instead focused on soccer in his younger years.
After averaging 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds in his second year at Lee College, Reath made the move to play for Johnny Jones and the Tigers at LSU. So far this season, he’s averaging 13.5 points, a team leading 6.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game which is tied for fifth most in the SEC. While Reath may be more of a low-post player, he can step away from the basket at hit a jump shot as well. He’s hit 11 of his 25 attempted threes this season.
Reath will match up with Bam Adeabyo on both ends of the court tonight. At 6’10” and 235 pounds, he’s doesn’t weigh as much as Bam, but his size is definitely comparable. If the Cats look to make Bam a focal point of the offense, they could get Reath into foul trouble. He’s had four or more fouls in 9 games this season. Look for backup center, 7’1″ Elbert Robinson III, to get some clock if Reath runs into foul trouble.
#0 Brandon Sampson, Sophomore Guard, 6’5″
Brandon Sampson was the final member of the 2015 recruiting class for LSU that included Ben Simmons and starting guard Antonio Blakeney. Sampson was less heralded than the other two, but was a really solid pickup for Johnny Jones nonetheless. He wasn’t a big factor in the LSU game plan last season, playing less than 15 minutes per game and averaging only 4 points and 1.2 rebounds. This season, Sampson has become a regular starter and his stats have jumped with the increase in minutes.
This year, Sampson is putting up 11 points and 2.8 rebounds per contest. He can and will step away from behind the three point line to hit shots. He’s just below Antonio Blakeney for most 3’s attempted on the season, and he has made 34.5% of his attempts. Last season he combined to play only 15 minutes in two games against the Cats, totaling two missed shots, two rebounds, and an assist.
The sophomore will likely be guarded by Malik Monk just because I see Briscoe defending the scorer in Antonio Blakeney and De’Aaron Fox matching up with the true point guard. However, like I mentioned early, the defense has been so poor from the guards that nothing Coach Cal could try would surprise me at this point. Not even mostly zone to avoid the guards getting beat on straight line drives.
#4 Skylar Mays, Freshman Guard, 6’4″
Skylar Mays is the true freshman point guard starter for this Tiger team. Mays was born and raised in Baton Rouge and is the relative of former NFL quarterback David Mays. He comes from a huge family, with seven siblings all with first names that begin with the letter S. After having such a star-studded recruiting class in 2015, Mays was LSU’s only recruit of at least a four star rating in the 2016 class.
For not receiving the great deal of attention that most other freshmen do around the country when they come into a program and start right away, Mays has been having a pretty solid year for a struggling team. He’s leading the team in assists with 3.8 per game, to go along with 7.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.1 steals. He’s not a great deep shooter, but he makes enough to keep the defense honest at 30.4% from beyond the arc.
I see the point guard matchup being De’Aaron Fox vs Skylar Mays. Two freshmen going head to head. I talked about, before the Florida game, how important it was for Fox to keep the Gator point guards at bay, and he struggled big time. Starter Kasey Hill had 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, while backup Chris Chiozza had 9 rebounds and 9 assists on his way to SEC Player of the Week honors. Look for Fox’s defense to ratchet up in tonight’s game.
#21 Aaron Epps, Junior Forward, 6’10”
With the dismissal of Craig Victor II in late December due to a violation of team rules, Aaron Epps has made the move into the starting role for LSU. Epps played only 8.2 minutes per game last season, and that amount has more than doubled this year. Epps was actually born in Louisville, but grew up an LSU fan.
Epps’ stats won’t usually be in the headline of any column or even in the first couple paragraphs of the article, but what he does give Johnny Jones is a guy who has been in the program for almost 3 years now, and that experience is invaluable. This year, he’s averaging 5.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, along with the ability to step outside and knock down 9 of his 23 attempted threes on the season.
The four-position was a worry for many UK fans, including myself at the beginning of the year because it was just such an enigma. Derek Willis goes from raining threes to getting beat on defense, while Wenyen Gabriel goes from one of the scrappier players on the court to basically disappearing for minutes on end. However, I think the four-spot is far down on the list of problems for the Cats. Getting some offensive production out of those two guys in their match up with Epps will be huge for stabilizing the offensive effort tonight.
Not much else can be said for tonight’s game. Both teams are due to have a good game, but in all honesty the Cats are much more likely to break out of their slump tonight than the Tigers of LSU. I think the only way that LSU can keep this game close is if they start to hit threes in bunches. The more you let a less talented team get hot from the field and stick around with you, the more they think they can pull off the upset. I can’t even get myself to type that I think this game will be close, because I honestly think the Cats come out revitalized and healthy for the first time in weeks. Or maybe it’ll be super close and I don’t actually know anything about sports. We’ll see what happens, this UK team is confusing.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.