Tuesday night’s huge showdown with Kentucky is unlike any other game the LSU basketball team has prepared for this season.
After all, you don’t get to play the No. 1 team in the nation every week.
Yet the mindset has to be the same when LSU faces Kentucky, the preseason favorite to claim the NCAA championship and winner of all 23 games it has played this season, in a sold-out Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“It’s hard calming it down,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of what his team faces in a crucial Southeastern Conference matchup. “I’m not going to make small any of it. To play the No. 1 team in the country is a great opportunity. You can’t schedule that, so when it comes around, it’s a little bit different.
“The atmosphere and everything around you changes,” he said. “That’s what you sign up for. To calm it is tough, so you have to make sure it’s controlled and the mindset is the right way.”
In other words, Jones wants LSU (17-6, 6-4 SEC) to perform the way it has when it has played up to the level of competition this season against Kentucky (23-0, 10-0 SEC) at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
When the Tigers have matched the intensity of their opponent — most notably against Texas Tech, West Virginia, Georgia, Ole Miss and Florida — the results have been positive.
That team is the one that will have to show up, not the one that lost in playing down to the likes of Missouri, Mississippi State and Auburn — three of the teams wallowing around the conference cellar.
“We definitely feel like we’ve come out with a lot of energy in some games,” LSU forward Jarell Martin said. “It seems like the bigger the game, the more we want it. … We feel like we come out with a burst of energy from the beginning, and we play like it.”
That would be a good thing for Martin and his teammates to have against a Kentucky team that has a wealth of talent, depth and the ability to beat you both inside and outside.
“They’re the No. 1 team in our conference and the No. 1 team in college basketball, so you can’t help but be excited as a player,” guard Tim Quarterman said. “At the same time, we can’t get caught up in the hype … we have to stay focused on the game.”
With a team that can throw a variety of weapons at you, from the Harrison twins — guards Aaron and Andrew — to the towering forwards in 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky has it all.
Cauley-Stein and Towns should be involved in two of the more intriguing matchups when they engage the 6-10 Martin and 6-8 forward Jordan Mickey in a battle of the bigs — four of the top post men in the conference.
But they’re not all that LSU has to be prepared for.
“They’re one of the greatest teams that I’ve had an opportunity to experience,” said Jones, who has been a college coach for 30 years after a four-year playing career at LSU.
Jones’ team faced Kentucky three times a year ago, winning a memorable game in the PMAC when an ice storm made it difficult for fans to get to the arena dubbed the “Ice Dome,” before the Wildcats advanced to the national championship game against UConn.
While LSU won an 87-82 thriller that night in leading from start to finish, Kentucky got them in Lexington and in the SEC tournament.
This year’s team is proving to be even better with the Harrisons and Cauley-Stein staying in school another year and being joined by one of nation’s top recruits in Towns and three other highly regarded freshmen in guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis and forward Trey Lyles.
“We had a chance to play against a group of them last year, then they have the No. 1 recruiting class,” Jones said. “They’ve done a tremendous job bonding together.
“The chemistry has been good, making it difficult not only for our conference but people like Kansas and teams outside the conference.”
Quarterman said LSU, which snapped a two-game losing streak with a 71-60 win over Alabama on Saturday night, can take something from those three matchups with Kentucky — even in the two losses.
“We can take away a lot from those games,” he said. “You know how hard you have to play, and that every possession counts, and that you just have to stay focused as a team.
“They play very good defense, and they’re an intense basketball team. They’re long and get a lot of blocked shots like we do. They’re just a good team overall, so we have to play together as a team.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.