The No. 9 Wildcats (11-2, 1-0 SEC) will attempt to slow down LSU freshman phenom Ben Simmons, who is building a cozy lead in the race for national player of the year honors. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 20.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. He already has 43- and 36-point games to his credit, as well as 20- and 19-rebound performances.
“Very unique basketball player,” UK associate head coach Kenny Payne said Monday before UK departed for Louisiana. “If you guard him with a big, he has the ability to play like a point guard. If you put a smaller player on him, he has the ability to play like a big.”
Despite versatile heroics that may remind some UK fans of former Wildcat All-American Jamal Mashburn, Simmons hasn’t been able to lead LSU (8-5, 1-0 SEC) to consistent wins so far this season. Tuesday’s 9 p.m. ET matchup at the Maravich Assembly Center figures to be a big opportunity for Simmons and the Tigers to make a statement.
“He’ll play great against us, I’m sure,” Payne said of Simmons. “I’m sure he’ll be excited.”
It will mark Simmons’ first game against a ranked opponent.
But Payne also believes the Cats will also be inspired to be one of the rare teams to limit Simmons’ damage. In Saturday’s 83-61 win over Ole Miss, UK held the Rebels’ Moody largely in check, although he managed 15 second-half points once the outcome had long been determined to finish with 23.
“I’m sure our guys will feel obligated to go at him,” Payne said. “He gets a lot of hype. Everybody considers him hands down the best player in the country, so we should be excited to play against him.
“It’s one of those issues that we don’t have to bring up. Players know and respect other players, so when you turn on the TV and you see commentators talking about Ben Simmons you can bet that our guys are watching.”
In their last outing, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis requested the responsibility of checking Moody. The 5-foot-9 Ulis is an unlikely candidate for any intentional matchups with Simmons, so who will accept that challenge?
Payne noted the Cats will likely use a variety of defenders against the phenom, ranging from forward Alex Poythress to center Marcus Lee and guard Isaiah Briscoe. “We want to throw a bunch of players at him that are going to compete against him, put pressure on him, make everything that he does hard.”
Kentucky will have to do so without fouling. Simmons is a frequent visitor to the free throw line, and in Saturday’s 90-82 upset at Vanderbilt -- arguably the Tigers’ best all-around performance of the season -- he knocked down 16 of 19 attempts.
Making the LSU star work at the defensive end of the floor could be another key. In 13 games this season, the Australian native has fouled out twice and has picked up four fouls in three other games.