LSU Looking to Surge to the Top in Wide Open SEC Race

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2016

ESPN didn’t get the 30-point, 20-rebound eye-popping gem of a game from Ben Simmons it hoped to showcase on Tuesday night, but LSU nevertheless had a near-perfect night in its big win over Kentucky. No gaudy numbers from Simmons? No Simmons really at all in the first half? No problem. LSU jumped out early, led by 10 at the break, and coasted into an 85-67 victory that gave the Tigers’ many detractors pause about their long-term prospects.

Tim Quarterman was LSU's big star in its win over Kentucky (

Tim Quarterman was LSU’s big star in its win over Kentucky (

LSU’s biggest issue this season has been its defense, which could be termed as inconsistent at best, disinterested at worst. Neither of these terms applied on Tuesday night, however, as LSU put up an impressive defensive performance in turning the Wildcats into a jump-shooting team that scored 0.96 points per possession. Kentucky couldn’t get anything easy in the paint and its most reliable offense was Jamal Murray desperately trying to create off the dribble late in the shot clock. It was a great recipe for a win, but perhaps the biggest story of the night was the lack of significant impact from Simmons (who still put up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, most of which came after the Wildcats were finished). It was instead Tim Quarterman who stole the show, notching 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a showcase game of his own talents. This scintillating performance came from a player who had not scored in double figures in the five previous games and whose role was becoming increasingly hazy with Simmons dominating the ball.

The Tigers beat the league behemoth with a mixture of great defense and players other than Simmons stepping up. If head coach Johnny Jones could have scripted a game to use as a building block for an SEC surge, this was it. Since Craig Victor debuted on December 16 so that the Tigers could put their complete team on the floor, they’ve notched four of their six most efficient offensive outings of the year. This now includes two SEC wins over teams that know how to defend (Kentucky and Vanderbilt). If the defense continues to progress, LSU suddenly becomes a factor in an increasingly uncertain SEC race. The Tigers have already beaten two of the teams most observers thought would challenge for the league title, but as crazy as it sounds after all the non-conference disappointments, a win in Gainesville on Saturday could position LSU as an early favorite to win the regular season title. South Carolina and Texas A&M are likely to disagree with that statement, but it would be hard to find a better 3-0 start to conference play than road wins over Vanderbilt and Florida and a home win over Kentucky.

Over at Big Blue Nation, the Wildcats’ persistent lack of a dominant big man was as apparent as ever against LSU. Alex Poythress fouled out while the game was still within reach, setting up a perfect opportunity for Skal Labissiere to put together a marquee moment. Didn’t happen. It’s increasingly looking like Kentucky’s ceiling this season will be tied to how quickly the freshman big man develops into a consistent contributor. Murray and Tyler Ulis were good enough against the Tigers, but the Wildcats will struggle to beat good teams without reliable low-post offense. After the game, John Calipari said that he didn’t think his team matched LSU’s intensity. “We weren’t ready to compete at the level they were competing at, especially our inside people,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. Every season it’s interesting to see how Kentucky copes with its massive target, and the Wildcats enter the fire again on Saturday in Tuscaloosa against an Alabama team that has played better than many expected.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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