Big blues? Tigers face UK challenge

LSU looks for a major upset when the No. 1-ranked Wildcats invade the PMAC.

Preparing for most opponents in basketball involves a process of identifying areas when your team is better – or worse – and figuring out a game plan that gives you the best shot to win.

Then there's getting ready to play Kentucky.

As good as the teams are that LSU has played until now, particularly back-to-back road games against 17th-ranked Florida and No. 18 Mississippi State, nothing is quite like preparing for the top-ranked Wildcats.

The Tigers (12-8, 2-4 SEC) and UK (20-1, 6-0) square off at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

In the third season under coach John Calipari, the Wildcats are a last-second 3-pointer away from being unbeaten. Despite that one loss at Indiana, there's no debate that Kentucky is a frontrunner for the 2012 national championship.

"When you say prepare – and this isn't bulletin-board material – it's easy because you know what you going to get," LSU coach Trent Johnson said of the Cats. "There are no weaknesses. You know if you don't do this, boom, you're done in that possession.

"There are certain things that we have to do. There are certain things we have to do well in terms of being aggressive, attack and play with some confidence. I fully expect us to do those things. If we don't do those things well, just like anything else, we're going to struggle."

Translation: Anything short of a nearly flawless performance from the Tigers might not be enough.

Kentucky has become a talent mill under Calipari, and this season is no different.

Three freshmen start for the Wildcats, but they happen to be three of the highest-ranked recruits from the Class of 2011: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Those three join sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb in a starting lineup so good that senior Darius Miller comes off the bench with 10.3 points a game – the sixth UK player averaging in double digits.

"They've got great talent and great depth on their team," said LSU senior Storm Warren, a reserve on the 2008-09 team that beat the Wildcats twice. "One thing you have to know about them is that Kentucky is going to come at your full-speed ahead with everything they've got. We just have to match their intensity at every spot and play as hard as we can. It's the same system they've run the last few years, and the one thing we depend on is our defense no matter what they run at us."

John Calipari

That system has equaled the SEC's most dominant team in recent memory.

Despite its youth, Kentucky leads the league or ranks second in nearly every major category. The key ones: The Wildcats stand second in the SEC in scoring offense and defense, averaging 78.4 points and allowing only 59. UK tops the league in shooting (48.3%), field-goal defense (36.2%) and free-throw shooting (71.2%). Rebounding is also a strength as the Cats are the league's best rebounding team with a +7.7 average margin.

Since Calipari arrived from Memphis, Kentucky has cruised to SEC regular-season championships in each of the last two seasons and added a Final Four trip last spring. Those teams were very good, but this edition might be a cut above.

"One of the things John does well that I don't think he gets enough credit for – forget how talented they are and forget about how talented the teams he had are – he gets a lot of guys that are really talented to play hard and guard," Johnson said. "They play hard, and they take no prisoners."

To underline Johnson's point, no opponent has shot as well as 50% from the field this season. SEC teams have fared a little better, hitting at a 40.4% clip.

Anthony Davis

The signature of the Wildcats' defense is shot-blocking. They have rejected 196 shots, a national best 9.3 per game, and have a chance to make a run at the NCAA record – 315 blocks by Connecticut in 2003-04. Jones has swatted away 98 and, barring injury, will obliterate the SEC freshman single-season record of 115 held by Shaquille O'Neal.

Warren said the Tigers are aware of Davis, but won't back down.

"He's very athletic and makes it tough to score inside," he said. "Once he leaves his feet, we have to have a counter move for him and be ready to pull it out. We can't be tentative around the basket because that's one of our strengths."

Playing to their strengths – defense, feeding off center Justin Hamilton and getting an occasional spark from the perimeter from Anthony Hickey, Andre Stringer or Ralston Turner – has been enough to keep the Tigers in contention against Florida and Mississippi State.

Now, though, it might require the total package to have a shot against the Cats.

"We just have to play our game and try to not make mistakes," Hickey said. "We're going to play hard and play defense and that's where it always starts for us."

Playing with a purpose

CHALK TALK: No. 1 Kentucky at LSU

VIDEO: TSD preview of LSU-Kentucky

Tiger Blitz Top Stories