Unlike most national prognosticators, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale believes the LSU basketball team still can make a run to a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, but anything short of that would be a “major disappointment.”
Speaking on a conference call Thursday, Vitale, who will call the semifinal games and championship game in the Southeastern Conference tournament next weekend, said LSU has a chance take a huge step toward its goal in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Kentucky.
Vitale said he thinks LSU will be in the NCAA tournament with an upset of Kentucky at raucous Rupp Arena. If they can’t pull that off, he said the Tigers could still get in with two wins in the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tennessee.
He acknowledged winning at Rupp will be tricky; Kentucky is 16-0 there this season and has won 37 home games in a row.
“LSU’s still got to do some winning,” said Vitale, who was in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Jan. 30 when LSU dropped a heartbreaker to then-No. 1 Oklahoma. “What they have to do is right in front of them; they have to do something no one has done.
“Think about it, no one’s beaten Kentucky at Rupp. Well, they have a date with Kentucky at Rupp this weekend. That’s it right there … you have got to go out and spring an upset. You’ve got to go out there and pound them, find a way to win.”
LSU crushed then-No. 9 Kentucky 85-67 back on Jan. 5 in the PMAC in the second SEC game of the season, but they’ve been inconsistent in too many facets of the game at times since.
Vitale said he likes what freshman guard Antonio Blakeney has done lately in averaging a shade under 20 points per game in his last eight outings, but fellow freshman Ben Simmons will need to take the Tigers where they want to go.
“He (Simmons) has got to carry them on his shoulder in a big moment,” Vitale said. “If they don’t win that game (at Kentucky), they have to win a minimum — a minimum — of two games in the SEC tournament to really be up there.”
Vitale said there’s no doubt LSU, which is 18-12 overall and just a game off the SEC lead at 11-6, has the talent to be in the Big Dance — especially with Simmons, whom he has on his “All-Rolls-Royce” team.
“They’re dangerous,” Vitale said of LSU. “Any time you go on the floor with a kid like Simmons, he’s capable of going off for a big, big game and his game will help because it stretches the defense. When defenses pack it in on him, there are better angles for the guys on the perimeter.
“Certainly, losing (Keith) Hornsby doesn’t help them at all,” he added. “They definitely have a chance with Simmons if a kid like Blakeney gets hot. And (Tim) Quarterman, to me, can be so good. That Oklahoma game, he nearly carried them in that game.”
Now, the only question is can Simmons and the Tigers do it over the next week.
“It would be a major disappointment if the letters come up NIT instead of NCAA,” Vitale said. “Right now, they have a chance to resurrect (their season) and take charge and find a way.”