There’s just something about playing the No. 1 team in the country, especially in your own building, in front of your own fans — even if it won’t count in the conference standings.
While that’s enough to get the adrenaline going for an LSU men’s basketball team that will take on top-ranked Oklahoma at 4 p.m. Saturday in a sold-out Pete Maravich Assembly Center, there’s an added treat for players and fans alike.
The 10th meeting of LSU and the nation’s No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll on the Tigers’ home floor — the seventh since the PMAC opened in 1972 — features two of the leading candidates for the Wooden Award, which goes to the nation’s top player.
But that won’t be on the minds of Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield or LSU forward Ben Simmons when one of the showcase games of the Big 12/SEC Challenge tips off.
While taking a break from league play, Oklahoma (17-2) will attempt to hold its spot atop the AP poll while LSU (13-7) tries to take advantage of a chance to secure a résumé-building win for an NCAA tournament bid.
“It’s unique,” LSU guard Keith Hornsby said. “It’s kind of like a break in the action to get in a big-time game as well. It’s the Big 12, which obviously has had a lot of success this year, and it’s the No. 1 team in the nation. It should be exactly what we want. It’s going to be an amazing environment.”
For LSU coach Johnny Jones, whose team dropped a 71-69 decision to No. 1 Kentucky in the PMAC last February, getting another shot at the top team in the nation is a great opportunity for his program.
“It will be a great experience for us,” he said. “They’re playing as well as anyone in the country, and we’re excited about the challenge. Buddy Hield has done an exceptional job staking a claim to possibly be the player of the year in college basketball, so we look forward to that.”
Hield, a 6-foot-4 guard who returned for his senior season, is the leader of Oklahoma’s up-tempo offense, which ranks fourth in the nation at 85.8 points per game.
With an NCAA-leading seven games of 30 points or more, Hield is averaging 25.9 points to rank second in the nation. He shoots 53.0 percent from the field, including 52.3 percent from 3-point range, and 90.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Simmons leads his team in five key categories: points (19.8), rebounds (12.7), assists (4.9), steals (1.8) and blocked shots (1.0).
Hield is second in the nation in 3-point percentage and is behind only OU teammate Jordan Woodard, a 6-0 guard who’s hitting 54.4 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 14.9 points.
The Sooners’ third guard, Isaiah Cousins, gets 13.1 points per game, and forward Ryan Spangler is also in double digits at 10.7.
“Those guys are very explosive, so we have our work cut out for us,” Jones said. “Buddy’s an excellent player, but you have to stop their team. You have to defend their basketball team, not one individual. If you’re concentrating on him, someone else is going to hurt you.”
“It’s exciting, but it kind of keeps me on edge a little bit,” said Hornsby, one of LSU’s top defenders. “You really have to focus defensively.”
Especially when it comes to guarding against the 3-point shot, which Oklahoma loves to take advantage of in transition — averaging 23.9 long balls (with 11.2 makes) per game.
“You can’t have times where you take a play off,” Hornsby said. “You always have to be alert because their top three guards, two of them are shooting over 50 percent and the worst one is 44.9 percent. That’s insane. We know they’re going to shoot a lot of 3s and they’re going to play fast. They’re very talented, so we’ve got to be aggressive and try not to be foul-prone.”
While Jones likely will give OU’s guards a lot of defensive looks, 6-6 guard Tim Quarterman said he wouldn’t mind drawing the assignment against Hield.
“You have to be long and try to stay in his wheelhouse,” Quarterman said. “You can’t let him get easy shots. ... You have to make it tough for him. I have no problem with the task; I just have to go out there and try to defend him to the best of my ability.”
LSU will be trying to build some more momentum for the final 10 games of the SEC schedule after winning back-to-back cliffhangers at Alabama (72-70) and vs. Georgia (89-85).
The Tigers had to dig deep for defensive stops in the closing seconds of both games to escape — surviving against Georgia despite watching their 10-point lead in the final minute shrink to one on two occasions.
“We had a couple of close games, but it’s good to win them in the final seconds when you get the stops you need,” Quarterman said. “So I think we have a lot of momentum going into this game; we just want to keep it going.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.