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LSU forward Naz Reid (0) greets students in the LSU student section following the Tigers' 83-78 win over Auburn, Saturday, February 9, 2019, at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Being the basketballphile that he is, Will Wade has made pilgrimages to Kentucky’s Rupp Arena before.

Tuesday, though, will mark the first time LSU’s coach will lead a team there.

Long ago Jay McCreary, who was LSU’s coach before Press Maravich and his famous son Pete arrived in Baton Rouge, was the coach at Muncie Central in Indiana. It was that team (called South Bend Central in the movie "Hoosiers") that lost the 1954 Indiana state title to Milan, the team that was called Hickory in the movie.

Of course, on Tuesday Wade will be in the role of Norman Dale, the fictitious coach of upstart Hickory. Maybe he should bring a tape measure with him and have Darius Days hoist Tremont Waters on his shoulders and measure the distance from the rim to the court, an in-character icebreaker for a Tigers team crashing the castle of Southeastern Conference basketball royalty that is 23,500-seat Rupp Arena.

“This place,” Wade might say under his breath, “is big.”


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It is a stretch to say LSU — 19-4 overall, 9-1 in the Southeastern Conference, ranked in the top 20 and being bandied about as a top-four NCAA regional seed — is the outclassed small-town school going against the overwhelming big-city school in a Hollywood script.

But the challenge is real and daunting. The Wildcats are 20-3 and tied for second in the SEC with LSU at 9-1, ranked No. 5 in the country and surging a 10-game winning streak.

“We will have to play our best, most consistent, complete 40-minute game,” Wade said Monday before he and the Tigers jetted off to Lexington.

Of that there is little doubt. But there should also be little doubt that Wade has built these Tigers for a moment such as this. And built them a bit in Kentucky’s image.

If Kentucky could hang a big neon sign on Rupp that reads “Home of the One-and-Done,” LSU could claim to be a new branch office of the firm. Wade went out and landed him a likely one-and-doner in Naz Reid, a beefy and versatile 6-foot-10 forward. While Reid is not being mentioned as a match for Ben Simmons’ consensus All-American status from a few seasons back (Did Simmons really play for LSU? It seems like a dream), he does have more shooting range than Simmons and is a more imposing force around the rim.

Simmons’ hasty departure for the NBA after his one petulant season at LSU led to a dreadful spinout of a 10-21 season in 2016-17 that cost Johnny Jones his job. Enter Wade, who last season led the Tigers to 18 wins with a 1-1 mark in the NIT and now has them on the cusp of NCAA tournament lock status. LSU is also in the hunt for the SEC regular-season title if it can pull off the upset of the big blue blood program in Rupp on Tuesday night.

It has been a stunningly rapid climb to this point for LSU over the past two seasons. Especially when you recall that this time in 2017 the Tigers were trapped in the midst of a 15-game losing streak that, under the circumstances, included a respectable 92-85 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 7 of that year.

The Tigers have to take care not to fall from the dizzying heights to which they have climbed this season, a one-point home loss to Arkansas the only blemish in their past 13 games. They might not have accomplished Kentucky-like banner-hanging deeds yet, but the NCAA tournament résumé is growing more and more impressive.

But this will be a tough assignment for LSU, the toughest game of this season. The massive blue-clad crowd in Rupp will be there to cheer on a superbly skilled UK team that has really turned up the defense of late, allowing an average of 56.5 points in its past six games. That means LSU, which likes to get up and go with the best of them, will have to find another way to win.

“I do think we can win different style games,” Wade said. “I think this will be a slower style than what we’ve been used to. We’ll have to grind it out in a tractor pull if that’s what it takes.”

To even think LSU has what it takes to go into Lexington and have a puncher’s chance of knocking off a top-five UK team speaks volumes about what Wade has wrought in his brief time in Baton Rouge.

A loss would not be the end of the world. The NCAA selection committee will not badly ding LSU for dropping this one. But a win would mean the world, and possibly set up a comet-rare showdown with No. 1-ranked Tennessee on Feb. 23 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for SEC supremacy.

If there is any advice for the Tigers it would be this: Play smart. Play loose. And if you find yourself with the ball in a one-possession game at the end, give the ball to Jimmy Chitwood, er, Waters, and let it fly. For all the small schools that never got a chance to get there.


Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​