A week ago, plenty of people left LSU for dead in regard to its NCAA tournament hopes.
Things look a lot better in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, now.
The Tigers picked up their biggest win of the season on Tuesday night, defeating No. 9 Kentucky, 85-67. Tim Quarterman was the star for LSU, putting up 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He took over the game early while star Ben Simmons struggled with foul trouble, creating everything for the Tigers and knocking down shots from deep.
Simmons was also impressive late after only scoring two points in nine first-half minutes. He ended up with 14 points and 10 rebounds, including six points late to help LSU pull away. He finished off the proceedings with this emphatic throw down with under two minutes remaining.
It’s also worth noting that the LSU defense held Kentucky (11-3, 1-1 SEC) to 41 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers. Tigers coach Johnny Jones deserves credit for adjusting his defensive coverage and blitzing guards on pick-and-rolls with hard-hedges and traps, causing Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis discomfort. The two guards were Kentucky’s only sources of offense on the night, but they were mostly unable to get others involved.
LSU (9-5, 2-0) certainly deserved the win, but Kentucky’s play in this one was far more concerning than the Tigers were impressive. The Wildcats were just never in the game. Ulis and Murray were fine, but the supporting cast didn’t give the team anything. Marcus Lee fouled out after six minutes. Alex Poythress also fouled out with nearly eight minutes left after only giving the team four points. Skal Labissiere was generally lost. Isaiah Briscoe was 2-6 from the field and 1-7 from the field. The rest of the group just didn’t produce.
And the production issues paled in comparison to the defensive problems, as the Wildcats allowed constant penetration on the perimeter and had no interior presence inside at the rim. The Tigers scored 44 points at the rim, and also added 19 at the foul line that came mostly off of drives to the paint.
That’s the biggest difference between last year’s Kentucky team and this one, right now. In order to get to where they want to go, the Wildcats must find a way to stem the tide in the paint, either by cutting down on slashes to the paint or by getting better protection in the paint from their forwards. It’s the kind of issue that could plague them through the year, and it could even call into question whether or not they are the absolute favorite to win the SEC this year.
On the other side of the court, how about the start to 2016 that LSU has had? Wins over Vanderbilt on the road and Kentucky at home are nearly as strong a start to a conference season as any team in the country has had. They’re 5-1 since Craig Victor has been eligible, with only a loss to a solid Wake Forest team. It’s an impressive run, and they deserve some credit for turning things around a bit.
The Tigers have hit the point where they’ve lost their margin for error because of their non-conference struggles. But if they can win the games they’re supposed to win and pick up a couple of upsets along the way, the NCAA tournament is still within grasp.