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ATLANTA – Whatever “tweak” John Calipari made with his team this week, whatever additional physicality that was injected into practice, the Kentucky Wildcats will have to take the positive strides Coach Cal has raved about in the last few days and prove they can carry it over to the games.
And the Cats, maybe in an odd twist of fate, will have to do it against a team that, outside of Florida, has given them more fits than anybody else this year.
LSU cruised past Alabama on Thursday night in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, 68-56, setting up a third matchup against Kentucky (22-9) in the quarterfinals on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Georgia Dome.
The seventh-seeded Tigers (19-12) defeated the Cats 87-82 in the first matchup in Baton Rouge, La., a score that was much closer than the game really was. It took UK overtime and a game-winning shot from Julius Randle in the second meeting for the Cats to win 77-76 and draw even in the season series.
Suffice it to say, Kentucky’s supposed improvements will be put to the test right away in the SEC Tournament.
“(We expect) another good game,” assistant coach Orlando Antigua said Thursday night in a brief media session at the team hotel. “I think they’re playing really good basketball. Obviously shot the ball really well tonight and I just think that we’re going to have another great challenge ahead of us.”
SEC Tournament basicsWhat: No. 2 seed Kentucky (22-9) vs. No. 7 seed LSU (19-12)
When: Friday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome (26,000) in Atlanta
Game notes: UK | LSU
If you’re going: SEC Tournament pep rally on Friday
SEC Tournament bracket
TV/Radio coverageTV: SEC TV
Radio: UK IMG
Satellite radio: XM 91; Sirius 91
Online audio: All-access
Live stats: Gametracker
Live stream: ESPN3
Live blog: CoachCal.com
Head coach: Johnny Jones (38-24 at LSU)
Player to watch: Johnny O’Bryant (24.5 points, 10.5 rebounds vs. UK this season)
Series history: UK leads 94-35
Last meeting: UK won 77-76 in overtime on Feb. 22
Pregame coverageGame preview: Tweak remains mystery, but Cats confirm it’s made a difference
Feature: Cal makes top-secret ‘tweak’ that’s suddenly ‘changed everything’
Blog: Cal says Cats have to get their mojo back
News: Randle wins SEC Freshman of the Year
Video: Coach Cal’s pre-SEC Tournament presser
Video: Cauley-Stein, Young, Randle preview SEC Tournament
LSU hit 11 3-pointers in its win over Alabama, only adding to the concerns the Cats have going into Friday night.
The Tigers hit seven 3-pointers in each of the first two games against UK, but LSU isn’t a great 3-point shooting team numbers-wise. For the most part, the Tigers rely on their muscle inside, led by Johnny O’Bryant, who has averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his two games vs. the Cats this year.
“He’s really, really talented,” Antigua said. “Big, physical and skilled. Can shoot the ball out to 17 feet, catch and shoot, and rebounds and is athletic. So he’s a man. He’s a challenge. … He plays really well against us for whatever reason.”
Throw in 3-pointers like LSU made Thursday night and it becomes a “pick-your-poison” kind of game for UK.
“It’s pretty daunting when anybody shoots that well,” Antigua said. “I mean, the 3 obviously can be a really big game changer and we’re going to have to try to see if we can use our length to make it a little more difficult for them so they’re not as comfortable, match up quickly in transition, and find the shooters and try to play to our strengths.”
For whatever reason, LSU plays to its strength when it faces Kentucky. Asked why the Tigers give his team such problems, Antigua said it’s simple.
“They’re a good team,” he said. “They got good size, they got athleticism, they got veteran guards, they got some guys coming off the bench that are also really talented.”
LSU guard Anthony Hickey was a bit more specific.
“I think we match up because we got small and big guards and we are able to get in the gaps and we’re able to play big with them,” Hickey said.
Hickey is one of those small guards that gave UK problems in the thriller at Rupp Arena. The diminutive guard carved his way through UK’s defense to a tune of 20 points three weeks ago.
The Kentucky native, who didn’t receive a ton of interest from his home-state school when he was tearing up the high-school scene, buried four 3-pointers in the last game, but Hickey downplayed the notion that he gets extra motivation playing against a team that didn’t offer him a scholarship.
“I love to compete,” Hickey said. “Just when you see Kentucky, you always get amped up because it’s a big name.”
Hickey has been quiet of late, scoring five points or less in four of the last five games, but the Cats know what type of night Hickey is capable of.
“Quite honestly, he’s had a tremendous career,” Antigua said. “Didn’t take a look at him as much because of our scholarship situation but I know he’s done an incredible job there at LSU. I would imagine that he would be excited to play us again.”
Hickey’s motivation will only be a minor subplot for two teams that are both badly in need of a win.
For LSU, which entered the day with an RPI of 72, a win on Friday is a must if the Tigers want to entertain any hopes of getting an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we need to string a few more together to really make a significant step to where we need to be,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said.
For Kentucky, a victory would go a long way in putting behind a miserable last two weeks that’s seen the Cats lose three of four and plummet in pundits’ NCAA Tournament projections.
“They will have an edge about themselves tomorrow,” Jones said.
More than anything, UK is just trying to get the ball rolling in the right direction at the most important time of the season.
“We want to try to come out and play well and see if we can take care of business in a game that we have ahead of us and see where that can take us,” Antigua said. “At this point in the year, you know, you’re playing that any game and you’re done in your tournament, so you want to try to get some momentum going.”
Antigua said the players have responded positively to the adjustments Calipari has made in practice this week, but now comes time for the Cats to show it on the court. If they’re going to change, what better opponent to do it against than one that has caused so many problems?
“I think our confidence is going to be pretty good,” Antigua said. “I think that we can control our own emotions and what we do, and that’s what we’re going to try to come out and do: play hard, play together and try to make things difficult for them.”