For the second year in a row, the LSU men’s basketball team will go into its Southeastern Conference regular-season finale on the road Saturday facing an incredibly tall task.
Some might view it as a near-impossible mission, just as it seemed a year ago when the Tigers were missing a key player for a game that would be vital to their NCAA tournament hopes and SEC tournament seeding.
But LSU, which was reeling from a tough home loss to Tennessee, survived against then-No. 18 Arkansas, basically locking up an NCAA tournament berth with All-SEC forward Jordan Mickey nursing a shoulder injury.
A year later, LSU (18-12, 11-6) faces a strikingly similar scenario in its 1 p.m. Saturday matchup with No. 22 Kentucky (22-8, 12-5) in Rupp Arena.
An upset would give the Tigers’ NCAA chances a boost as well as assure them a double bye and a pass into Friday’s quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.
This time, LSU will be without guard Keith Hornsby, who calmly made a 3-pointer from the corner for the win as the final horn sounded last season at Arkansas.
The Tigers will have to find another hero Saturday: Hornsby will be out for a fourth consecutive game since aggravating a sports hernia injury Feb. 20.
“It’s a similar situation because we were without one of our key players,” coach Johnny Jones said, noting it’s a little different because his team has won its past two games. “It was a great opportunity for us, and it was a great way to end the (regular) season. I’m hopeful our guys are in an even better mindset this time around with two wins in a row.”
In addition to trying to strengthen its postseason résumé, Jones’ team can nail down a high seed for a run in the SEC tournament that could get them back into the NCAA tournament conversation.
LSU can land any of the top five seeds for the SEC tournament, depending on the outcome of its game as well as Vanderbilt-Texas A&M (which tips off at 11 a.m.) and South Carolina-Arkansas (which begins at 4 p.m.).
The Tigers could be playing for a share of the SEC regular-season title if 11-6 Vanderbilt can upend A&M, which shares the league lead with Kentucky at 12-5, in College Station.
LSU also can clinch a top-four seed and one of four double byes with either a Vanderbilt or South Carolina loss.
Jones said it’s important that his team doesn’t worry about what’s going on before its game.
“Our focus and attention has to be to play well regardless of what transpires or happens in the game prior to ours,” he said. “Our mindset, attention really can’t change outside of just knowing the score. Our motives have to be the same, and our goal is to go up there and play the best we possibly can and try to win. Regardless of what happens in the first game, that shouldn’t change for us.”
“We just want to go into the conference tournament with some momentum,” LSU guard Tim Quarterman said. “That would be a big win for us if we can just go in there and pull it out.”
That’s where it gets sticky for LSU, which pummeled Kentucky 85-67 on Jan. 5 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Kentucky has won 36 consecutive home games, the second-longest winning streak in Rupp’s 40-year existence, and the Wildcats are 118-4 in the building during coach John Calipari’s seven years there.
On top of that, Kentucky, which will honor senior forward Alex Poythress before the game, has a 92-19 all-time record on Senior Day.
Nonetheless, LSU is looking forward to the opportunity.
“We can definitely go in there and get the win; we just have to play together,” said LSU freshman Antonio Blakeney, who likely will lock up with Kentucky’s Jamal Murray in a battle of high-scoring McDonald’s All-America guards. “We know it’s going to be hard because it’s on the road, and they’ll be trying to get their revenge for what we did here.”
Blakeney has averaged 19.8 points in the past eight games. Murray, who had 21 points in Baton Rouge, has scored at least 20 points in his past nine outings and averages 19.9 for the season.
LSU also has to cope with Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis, who had a team-high 23 points in the first matchup. He averages 16.7 points and a league-leading 7.1 assists.
Still, forward Ben Simmons said they’ll have to treat Kentucky like a different team because it’ll be two months to the day the Tigers crushed the Wildcats.
“Definitely, just because it’s been a while since we played them,” he said. “We’ve gotten better. … They’ve gotten better, so I think this is the point where teams are coming together. It’s the final game, and you really have to put it all out there.”
LSU’s Southeastern Conference tournament seeding scenarios
Three Saturday games — Vanderbilt (11-6) at Texas A&M (12-5), LSU (11-6) at Kentucky (12-5) and South Carolina (10-7) at Arkansas (9-8) — will have a bearing on the top five SEC tournament seedings. LSU could wind up anywhere from the No. 1 seed to No. 5. Here are the Tigers’ scenarios.
No. 1 seed: Vanderbilt win + LSU win
(LSU wins four-team tiebreaker for first)
No. 2 seed: Texas A&M win + LSU win
(LSU wins tiebreaker over Kentucky)
No. 3 seed: Texas A&M win + LSU loss + South Carolina loss
(LSU wins tiebreaker over Vanderbilt)
No. 4 seed: Vanderbilt loss + LSU loss + South Carolina win
(LSU gets the second spot in a three-team tiebreaker with South Carolina and Vanderbilt)
No. 4 seed: Vanderbilt win + LSU loss + South Carolina loss
(LSU finishes in solo fourth)
No. 5 seed: Vanderbilt win + LSU loss + South Carolina win
(LSU loses a two-team tiebreaker with South Carolina)