John Calipari is thankful his team has faced challenging stretches.
He’s thankful because facing the likes of North Carolina and Louisville back to back in late December and Auburn, Mississippi State and Kansas in quick succession in January helped prepare Kentucky for what he believes is the Wildcats’ most difficult week to date.
LSU and Tennessee are headed to Rupp Arena this week.
“The next two, you have games that are Elite Eight games, Final Four games,” Calipari said. “That is where we are playing now. Let’s see where we are.”
The eyes of the college basketball world might be looking ahead slightly to that game against the top-ranked Volunteers this weekend, but Coach Cal’s are focused intently on the task at hand: the Tigers.
“It is starting with this team that comes in and everyone is looking by this game and talking about that next one,” Calipari said. “I am not. I haven’t looked at one tape of Tennessee. Not one. I haven’t thought about them. I don’t know what they run.”
The time will come for that, but not until after No. 5/5 Kentucky (20-3, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 19/21 LSU (19-4, 9-1 SEC) Tuesday at 7 p.m. in a matchup of teams tied for second place in league play. The Tigers, winners of 12 of their last 13 games, will have UK’s undivided attention.
“From what I see, they’re really good,” Immanuel Quickley said. “Great guard play, real versatile, real good on the interior as well. So we’ve just got to come out and do what we do.”
Quickley and the UK guards will have a challenge on their hands against LSU’s Tremont Waters. The sophomore point guard spurned a chance to turn pro after a standout freshman season and is now averaging 15.7 points, 6.1 assists (third in the SEC) and 3.0 steals (leads the SEC).
“Tremont does an unbelievable job at stealing balls on defense and creating havoc that way, and then offensively he really sees the court and can score,” Calipari said. “So he’s terrific that way.”
Waters leads a balanced team with seven players averaging 7.0 or more points per game. The Tigers score an average of 83.3 points per game, deploying a fast pace that should make for an entertaining game in Rupp Arena.
“Let me tell you what will be interesting in this game: This will be a team that will go at you at certain guys and try to beat people on the dribble,” Calipari said. “This is going to be a challenge. We are talking about one guy but they’ll pick and choose. They do a lot of that.
The Tigers are aggressive on both ends, forcing 16.3 turnovers per game behind the pesky Waters and rebounding 37.3 percent of their own misses (ninth nationally) behind impressive athletes Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams and Kavell Bigby-Williams. LSU is also nearly impossible to put away, staging four double-digit comebacks in its last five outings and losing only once.
“They’re not afraid,” Calipari said. “Neither are we. We play the same. We’ve been down. We’ve been down 12-2, 16-4, I mean, looking at each other. If I remember Georgia it was dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk. What in the world? I mean, so we’re both kind of the same. That’s why it should be an exciting game.”
For as well as LSU is playing, Kentucky has matched the Tigers win for win. In fact, the two teams’ seasons parallel one another closely. The Tigers sat at 7-3 entering a game on Dec. 15, fresh off a tough loss to Houston. The Cats were 7-2 that same day having lose in overtime to Seton Hall. Nearly two months later, they’ve lost twice in 27 tries between them.
“This is going to be a hard one,” Calipari said. “Believe me, a hard game. A hard game for us to win. I don’t care if it is in Rupp Arena or I-95. This is a hard game to win because of how they play. But, if we can give them a full 40, then it should be a good game.”
Coach Cal might spend more time this week first praising LSU and later Tennessee, but he – like his team – will also carry a hard-earned, though quiet, confidence into a week that will go a long way toward deciding the SEC’s regular-season championship.
“If we had played these two teams a month ago, it probably would have been ugly,” Calipari said. “Now we’ve got a chance that we’re coming together ourselves.”