After another Quadrant 1 win over the weekend, the Wildcats return to Lexington for the biggest week in SEC play in quite some time. UK will play four of their next five games at home with the two biggest meetings occurring this week. The Wildcats get both LSU and Tennessee in their own backyard over the next few days and once it’s over we will have much more clear SEC title race.
Under 36-year-old head coach Will Wade, the Tigers have taken off in the second season under the former Shaka Smart assistant. Wade put together winning programs at both Chattanooga and VCU before taking the LSU gig and he has passed every test early in his career.
The young head coach has all of a sudden turned LSU into a national contender after a couple of outstanding recruiting classes. The Tigers are a clear top-20 team in the sport and with a 9-1 SEC record they are firmly in the hunt for an SEC regular season championship. It would be the school’s first title since 2009. Wade has this program performing to its peak in just two seasons.
Nuts and Bolts
After Shaka Smart finally left VCU for another job, the Rams moved quickly and hired former assistant Will Wade. In two years in Richmond, Wade led the program to two NCAA Tournament appearances including one Atlantic 10 regular season title. After 51 wins, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva named the young gun the next head men’s basketball coach at LSU.
Will Wade instantly put in work on the recruiting trail by pulling off a coup. Wade convinced top-50 point guard Tremont Waters to say no to the Big East and to head south to run the show in Baton Rouge. After an NIT appearance in year one, Wade again did some major damage on the recruiting trail.
The most recent signing class for the Tigers was ranked in the top-five nationally and it included four top-70 prospects. LSU reeled in a pair of five-stars (Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams) and four-star prospects (Darius Days and Ja’vonte Smart) that are immediately producing at the college level.
Since losing to Florida State and Oklahoma State in the same weekend in November on a neutral floor, the Tigers have won 15 of their last 17 games. LSU’s two losses were by a combined seven points with one being on the road to a top-15 Houston squad. The Tigers are 9-1 in SEC play with five Quadrant 1 wins. They do it by playing an exciting brand of basketball.
LSU ranks first in the SEC in tempo averaging 73.9 possessions per game in league play. This is nearly two possessions higher than Arkansas who ranks second. Overall, the Tigers rank in the top-50 nationally in pace of play. With quick twitch athletes at every position on the floor, the Tigers want to make each game a track meet. It’s easy to see why they’ve erased multiple double-digit deficits this year. LSU is putting up 77.6 points per games in SEC play including nine games with at least 83 points. They put the ball in the hole.
Tonight will be the 116th meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning a 89-26 series lead. In their only meeting against Will Wade, Kentucky beat LSU on the road by a count of 74-71 last season. Since taking over, John Calipari is 11-2 against the Tigers with the losses occurring in the Deaf Dome in 2014 and 2016. LSU has not won in Rupp Arena since 2009. The Tigers only has five wins all-time at Rupp. Four of them occurred between 1979-1989. Dale Freaking Brown.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 8.5 point favorite with a total of 149. That’s a projected final score around 78.5-70. On the season, both Kentucky and LSU are 13-9-1 against the spread. In SEC play, the Wildcats are 6-3-1 against the number while the Tigers are 7-2-1. The over is 5-1-1 in LSU’s last seven games while the under is 7-2 in Kentucky’s last nine games. UK is 4-2 against the spread against power conference teams at home. LSU is 4-1-1 against the spread in true road games.
There aren’t many point guards better than Tremont Waters and the sophomore has been a superstar for this program. The sub-six-foot lead guard from Connecticut put up just under 16 points per game in his freshman year to go along with six assists. With more talent and experience around him this season, Waters has matched those numbers.
The diminutive guard has been a bit more efficient from the floor this season and he is one of the best steal producers in the country. Watching him and Ashton Hagans go at it is going to be some exciting basketball.
On the wings, Waters is joined by a pair of guards who can go off for 20-plus points any night. Both junior Skylar Mays and blue-chip freshman Ja’vonte Smart are streaky shooters who can get buckets in bunches when they are on. The duo is shooting a combined 32.5 percent from three this season on over 200 attempts. So they need a lot of volume to come up with points. Mays has been the far more efficient player with Smart shooting under 40 percent from two-point range. These guys can get hot, but opposing defenses are okay with them hoisting up shots rather than Waters.
Off the bench, Will Wade will use junior college transfer Marlon Taylor. The New York native might be the best dunker in the SEC and he will be very dangerous to deal with in the open court. Much like Mays and Smart, he can be very inconsistent shooting the rock but that doesn’t stop him from letting it rip from three.
In a superstar class, Naz Reid was the crown jewel and the big from New Jersey is a legit diaper dandy. Reid has been a force on the interior and perimeter. In a conference with Grant Williams and P.J. Washington he’s not getting enough credit.
Reid is putting up nearly 14 points per game to go along with 6.4 boards in just 24 minutes. He can step away from the basket and hit a shot (36.8 percent from three) in addition to being a force in the paint. Reid is excellent in ball screen actions whether rolling to the hoop or popping out for a jumper. The star freshman is a solid rebounder and effective rim protector in addition to his offensive skills. He also has the athletic ability to get out and be an effective ball screen defender. He’s a pro.
Joining Reid in the most recent recruiting class was another blue-chip big and Emmitt Williams has been a nice piece for LSU to bring in off the bench. The 6-foot-6 forward plays the four and has a unique uniform preference.
Emmitt Williams' shorts are getting shorter and shorter by the second pic.twitter.com/kMzOOQfjl1
— SI Extra Mustard (@SI_ExtraMustard) January 31, 2019
Despite the distraction of the shorts, Williams has been an effective player who is outstanding on the offensive glass. He is a quick jumper and a bench piece who provides instant energy. Joining him off the pine is fellow freshman Darius Days. The less heralded recruit of LSU’s class of 2018 has been a quality role player who has the ability to stretch the floor with the three-point shot.
To play the five, LSU is using Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams. The London, England native is in his first year playing for the Tigers after sitting out last season. He allows Naz Reid to play the four when Will Wade wants to go big. The traditional center is shooting nearly 70 percent from the field and is outstanding on the offensive glass. Bigby-Williams is one of the best shot blockers in the country and he will be needed to allow LSU to matchup with the big lineups UK will employ.
Keys to Victory
- LSU is one of the best teams in the country at forcing you to play at your tempo. The Tigers push the pace at all times and want to get up shots quickly. On the defensive end, they are willing to give up buckets in change for playing aggressively by going after steals. Kentucky is going to have to play this game at a fast pace. The Wildcats must be able to get points in fast break opportunities and consistently guard LSU without fouling. Force the Tigers to make shots that aren’t lay-ups and free throws.
- LSU is good at a few things on defense. The Tigers have excellent rim protection and they do a great job forcing turnovers. After that, there are some places where they really struggle. LSU ranks as one of the worst two-point defenses in the country. SEC foes are hitting 55.5 percent of their shots from two-point range and this easily ranks dead last in the SEC. Meanwhile, Kentucky has been very solid inside the arc. Add this in with UK’s offensive rebounding ability and these are two things the Wildcats should be able to take advantage of.
- Any time you’re facing a team as good as LSU, it’s one where you best players have to play well. Kentucky will need both Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson to be aggressive on offense. P.J. Washington will need to continue to play at high level. Ashton Hagans needs to stay solid at point and Reid Travis must to do what he does on the offensive glass. Play your game at home and business should handle itself.