The LSU basketball team will travel to Kentucky tomorrow and will likely have to win in order to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament (without winning the SEC Tournament). As ESPN points out every time LSU takes the court now, anything less than an NCAA bid would be disappointing, and it's unfortunate that it has come down to needing to win at Kentucky.
We know it's possible. Two months ago, LSU defeated Kentucky 85-67, although that game was played in Baton Rouge, where the Tigers have definitely played better this year. Winning at Kentucky will be much tougher, and below are the five things that I think will need to happen for LSU to win.
1. Ben Simmons needs to keep hitting free throws.
We know what to expect from Simmons at this point, as he has consistently been a triple-double threat throughout the season. His free throw shooting, however, has been inconsistent. Still, in the last two games, both LSU victories, Simmons hit 20 of his 23 free throw attempts. This made a huge difference when closing out the wins.
2. Craig Victor needs to stay out of foul trouble.
I love Victor's game, and I look forward to watching him become more of a leader. Unfortunately, I think he often ends up having to be physical in the paint, due to LSU's overall lack of inside players and the fact that Simmons appears to avoid contact to stay out of foul trouble himself. Victor's mid-range shooting and his toughness will be crucial to beating Kentucky, and the Tigers can't afford to watch him sit early if he picks up a couple of early fouls.
3. Antonio Blakeney needs to stay hot.
We all know Simmons is the best freshman in the country, if not the best overall player. But Blakeney is special, and it's rare that a player with his talent is not even the best freshman on his own team. But he knew that coming in, started hot, spent the middle of the season coming off of the bench, and has simply become an offensive force. He is averaging 23 points per game over the team's last four contests, shooting 80 percent (24 of 30) from the free throw line during that time. With Keith Hornsby's recent injury, Blakeney absolutely must score for the Tigers to win.
4. Someone else needs to step up.
Whether it's Tim Quarterman, Jalyn Patterson, or even Brandon Sampson, with Hornsby out, this team needs a fourth scorer to step up. Quarterman is the most likely candidate, and he led the Tigers in the January win over the Wildcats with 21 points, along with 10 rebounds and seven assists. Although that type of performance has not been the norm for Quarterman lately, he has averaged 13 points in his last two games. But again, I'd settle for Patterson stepping up and hitting some outside shots if he's left open. He had 11 against Florida just two games ago, while Sampson scored eight against Missouri this week.
5. LSU needs to keep any lead it might get.
When the Tigers upset the Wildcats in January, they led by 10 at halftime. I remember Kentucky coach John Calipari saying the second half would be much different. It wasn't, as the Tigers outscored his team 48-40. Lately, however, LSU has struggled keeping leads. Last weekend, Florida scored 62 points in the second half to cut an 11-point halftime lead to five, while Missouri trailed by 22 at the half earlier this week before losing by only nine. And we all remember Blogathon, when LSU led no. 1 Oklahoma by double digits and then lost the game. Without a strong inside game, this team can only keep a lead if it protects the ball during every possession, and that's what needs to happen tomorrow.