Last time Trent Johnson walked out of Rupp Arena he was a newly crowned SEC Champion thanks to a late Tasmin Mitchell jumper.
When the Tigers take the floor Saturday, that moment will be nothing but a distant memory.
A two game winning streak to open conference play has the Tigers (10-7, 2-0) feeling a bit better about themselves, but they understand the challenge that lies ahead.
“It’s a very crazy environment to play in,” said freshman Matt Derenbecker. “Obviously they have some very talented players. We just want to try to hold them to as few points as possible and give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
The Tigers’ most hostile road environment of the season was on Nov. 21 in Tupelo, Miss., when LSU fell against Memphis in front of nearly 8,000 blue-clad fans.
Kentucky averages 23,109 fans per game at home.
“It should be fun. Obviously I’ve never seen a crowd like the one I’m going to see,” said freshman guard Andre Stringer. “It’s going to be very exciting. We’re looking forward to it.”
LSU’s new found success on defense has been largely due to a shift to a 2-3 zone. The zone affords opposing teams opportunities to get open looks from 3-point range, while limiting touches around the basket.
The Tigers did a tremendous job holding Arkansas sharp shooter Rotnei Clarke to just one 3-point basket made, but Kentucky leads the SEC in 3-point field goals made as a team.
“There are not many shooters as good as Clarke in the country,” said Derenbecker. “Kentucky has more spot shooters. They have a great point guard in Brandon Knight that we have to keep out of the lane.”
Knight, a freshman, was the third-ranked point guard in the 2010 class. Stringer is familiar with Knight from the AAU circuit.
“His wing span, it hurt me. Obviously I can’t play around with the ball in front of him,” said Stringer of the 6-foot-3 Knight. “He is aggressive defensively and offensively, but my advantage is that I may be a little quicker, a little lower to the ground.”
Knight, who averages 17.4 points per game, is one of three Kentucky freshmen in the top 15 on the SEC scoring list. Guard Doron Lamb ranks 15th at 14 points per game, and 6-foot-9 Terrence Jones is second in the league in scoring at 18.7 points per game.
“The three freshmen are special,” said Johnson. “Everybody wants to make comparisons to the group they had last year (John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Demarcus Cousins). The group they had last year was real physical and real nasty. These three are the same, but their skill level is very impressive. They can shoot the three. They can put it on the floor.”
Though LSU has won its two conference games, the Tigers are 10th in the league in scoring offense at just 59 points per contest. That number almost certainly must improve if Johnson and Co. want to steal a win on Saturday.
“We need to come out with a lot of energy and play well early,” said Johnson. “Unlike the last two conference games, we need to shoot the ball well. We’re gonna have to shoot the ball well because they want to play fast, and they can score.”
Saturday’s game tips off at 3 p.m. CST and is televised by the SEC Network and ESPN3.com.