Even though it was an 11½-point underdog for its Southeastern Conference opener at Vanderbilt on Saturday night, things couldn’t have turned out any better for the LSU basketball team.
After sputtering at times during a 7-5 start, the Tigers needed a shot of confidence for the early part of a tough SEC schedule as well as a matchup with undefeated Oklahoma later this month in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
LSU got what it needed with a complete performance on both ends of the floor en route to a 90-82 road win against Vanderbilt, the preseason pick to finish second in the SEC race, in Memorial Gymnasium.
Indeed, the confidence boost in a tough venue couldn’t have come at a better time considering LSU (8-5, 1-0 SEC) now gets to go against league favorite Kentucky (11-2, 1-0) at 8 p.m. Tuesday before a sellout crowd in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“It gave our guys a great deal of confidence the way they were able to play in a tough environment there,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said Monday. “We did a great job executing offensively and defensively against a team noted for its abilities offensively in terms of making plays and what they do defensively.”
LSU can only hope that newfound confidence carries over against No. 9 Kentucky, which opened SEC play with a 83-61 bashing of Ole Miss on Saturday.
“We all knew it was kind of like our first really big win, and it was probably the highest confidence we’ve had since the beginning of the year,” said LSU guard Keith Hornsby, who had 23 points in the win over Vanderbilt.
“Being in that locker room, with all the happy looks we had on our faces, it was a great feeling we really hadn’t had in a while,” he said. “Obviously, that helps coming into a Goliath of a game.”
The Tigers turned in a solid defensive effort in the first half in holding the Commodores to 36.0 percent shooting. LSU trailed by just one point before the offense took over and outscored Vanderbilt 56-47 in the second half.
The Tigers know it can’t end there.
“I think that’s the level we have to hold ourselves at,” LSU forward Ben Simmons said of carrying it over to another big challenge. “It’s really how we should be playing at every game no matter what.”
LSU will certainly need a similar effort against Kentucky, especially when it comes to their perimeter defense.
The Wildcats are led by three-guard lineup that includes sophomore Tyler Ulis, one of the few holdovers from their 38-1 team of a year ago, and freshmen standouts Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.
Ulis, who had 20 points and 10 assists in the win over Ole Miss, averages 13.4 points and 5.9 assists a game, while Murray averages a team-high 16.8 points a game. Briscoe comes in scoring 11.0 points per game.
LSU point guard Tim Quarterman, who was one of the ringleaders of the defensive effort at Vanderbilt, said the Tigers have to continue their recent play on that end of the floor.
After giving up back-to-back 100-point games to North Florida and Houston in early December, the latter a 105-98 overtime setback, the Tigers have allowed just 68.8 points per game in their past five outings.
But he said there has to be a continued emphasis against Kentucky.
“They’re an up-and-down the floor team, a good transition team,” Quarterman said. “Murray likes to knock down shots, Briscoe drives the ball, and Ulis does a lot of different things for them. We just have to go out there on the perimeter, take it as a challenge and step up on the defensive end.”
Quarterman said trying to keep Ulis, a 5-foot-9 point guard, from getting off to a good start will be a big key to LSU’s success early.
While that could mean 6-4 guard Antonio Blakeney early, the job could eventually fall to 6-1 guards Josh Gray and Jalyn Patterson to try to make him uncomfortable.
“We’ll have to use our length on him,” Quarterman said. “”We’ve got to try and make sure he doesn’t get started early, because he’s the engine to the team. … He makes them go. We have to use our length so he can’t see over the top of us and just be big on him.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.