No. 10 Kentucky is finally in a familiar spot alone atop the SEC standings.
But suddenly-unranked LSU hosts the Wildcats in Baton Rouge, La., on Tuesday night with an opportunity to rejoin them in first place with a win.
The Tigers (18-7, 9-3 SEC) are the defending regular-season champions and took sole possession of first place with an 8-0 start in conference play. But they have lost three out of their last four and dropped out of the AP Top 25 on Monday, a week after sliding from No. 18 to No. 25.
Auburn beat Kentucky on Feb. 1 to force a three-way tie, but No. 13 Auburn, like LSU, is a game behind Kentucky after losing to Missouri last Saturday.
Coach John Calipari has the Wildcats (20-5, 10-2), who won their fourth straight by holding off Ole Miss on Saturday, on schedule with the SEC tournament just three weeks away.
“(Calipari) always says that we try to get better progressively, closer to March,” freshman guard Tyrese Maxey said. “It was big for us to win a game like that — not being able to hit shots from the 3-point line.”
Kentucky made just 2 of 22 3-pointers against the Rebels, but guard Immanuel Quickley said overcoming poor shooting to win is a good sign as the postseason approaches.
“That’s what the tournament is about,” Quickley said. “You want to be at your best when the tournament comes around. We hear all the stories about a bad shooting night in the tournament, and you lose a game.
“Just knowing that we can still win games when we aren’t shooting, you know our defense can come through for us, and that’s really what it’s about.”
Calipari likened the game to “a rock fight” that “ended up being a great win.”
“I’m happy as heck,” Calipari added. “You don’t have to play great every night, and you can get pushed around for three quarters of the game, but the last part of the game you play to win.”
LSU won 10 straight games in its surge to first play in the SEC, but a 99-90 loss at Vanderbilt, which entered the game 0-8 in the conference, on Feb. 5 started the slide.
“We probably weren’t as good as the 10-game winning streak,” Tigers coach Will Wade said, “and we’re not as bad as we look now.”
LSU lost at Alabama 88-82 last Saturday, and the Crimson Tide outscored the Tigers by six both from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line.
“I always talk about when we play them, you can’t lose the 3-point line and the free-throw line,” Wade said. “You can lose one of the two and beat them, but you can’t lose both of them.”
The Tigers also have been hurt by allowing offensive rebounds. Alabama had 13, 10 of which came in the second half, leading to six second-chance points. LSU has allowed 42 offensive rebounds in its last three games.
“We need team rebounding,” Wade said. “We’re not calculating things right on the glass right now.
“Our margin for error isn’t very big, just like a lot of teams in college basketball. There’s going to be ebbs and flows, but we’ve got to play better. We’re in a little bit of a rut right here.”
–Field Level Media