Kentucky vs. LSU College Basketball Preview: Will the Wildcats Stay Undefeated?
The Kentucky Wildcats are now 23-0 after defeating the Florida Gators in Gainesville on Saturday. After finding themselves down two at the half, the Wildcats came back to score 40 points in the second half to defeat the Gators 68-61.
This was one of the tougher games for the undefeated Wildcats this season. Seven points is their slimmest margin of victory in a non-overtime game, and their average margin of victory this season is 22.1 points. Nonetheless, the Wildcats have yet to lose a game this year.
Tonight, Kentucky takes their perfect record to Baton Rouge to take on a tough LSU Tigers team.
Will LSU be just another tally on the Wildcats' impressive win total? Or will they be the first team to hand Kentucky a loss this season?
Let's look at how the two teams match up on paper.
Despite their relatively slow pace (242nd in the nation), Kentucky is one of the best offensive teams in the country. They have a wide range of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and as I mentioned in my earlier piece on the top 10 offenses in the nation, they have seven players scoring at least 7.5 points per game and run 10 players deep with a talented bench.
The Wildcats' two best offensive weapons, freshmen standouts Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker, give Kentucky balance on offense. Towns averages just 9 points on the season but, in his last two games, he's averaging 17 points per game on over 57% shooting from the floor. Booker is averaging 10.7 points per game on over 50% shooting from the floor and 47% from the three point line.
While Towns does his scoring inside, Booker spaces the floor with this three-point prowess, making nearly two threes per game. As a result, the Wildcats can beat you from the inside or the outside.
LSU does things a little differently with the ninth-fastest pace in all of college basketball. However, the Tigers' offense isn't as good as you'd think it would be. They score less than one point more per game than the slower Wildcats and are 169th in the country with an Offensive Rating of 102.6. They're just not very efficient.
Despite having two dominant interior players in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, the Tigers shoot just 45.5% from the field and a paltry 33.0% from the three. And they may be 38th in the nation in assists, but that doesn't mean they're good passers. In fact, the Tigers have only six more assists than turnovers this season and average over 15 turnovers per game. If you can't take care of the ball, and if you can't make shots when you do have the ball, you're not going to have an efficient offense by any means.
Kentucky has the clear offensive advantage.
The battle of the defenses is the most intriguing part of this matchup. Kentucky, as we all know, is the best defense in the nation. They are second in the nation in opponents' points per game, allowing just 51.5 per, and first in the nation in Defensive Efficiency Rating, allowing just 80 points per 100 possessions.
Their team length and size is too much for their opponents as they average over 7 steals and force over 15 turnovers per game -- and that's not even the best part of their defense.
The Wildcats lead the nation in opponent field goal percentage, holding their opponents to 33.5% shooting from the field. Kentucky influences a lot of shots with its great shot blocking ability as they rank second in the nation in blocks.
Kentucky's not the only great shot blocking team in this matchup though. LSU is sixth in the nation and first in SEC play in blocks. That's right -- the Tigers have 16 more blocks than the Wildcats in the same amount of SEC games (10). But blocks alone can't win games on the defensive end.
While LSU gives up 67.7 points per game to its opponents as a result of its elevated pace of play, the Tigers give up just 93.3 points per 100 possessions. They use their size to influence shots and to turn teams over. They may not turn teams over as much as the Wildcats, but the Tigers average 7 steals and force 14 turnovers per game in conference play.
Though LSU is a very good defensive team in its own right, Kentucky has a slight edge as the number one defense in the country.
But could the Tigers overcome the numbers and pull off the upset? Maybe.
If they can't, who will? Here's a look at the Wildcats' remaining schedule.
There doesn't appear to be many challenges going forward for the Wildcats. They may play four teams currently ranked in the top 50 of our power rankings, but only one of those games are away from Rupp Arena -- a March 3rd meeting with the Georgia Bulldogs.
But I wouldn't look past Arkansas at home on February 28th. Arkansas is the best team Kentucky will face down the stretch, and they'll be looking to improve upon their NCAA Tournament resume. The Razorbacks are currently second in the SEC and our projections have them pegged as a seven-seed in this year's tournament. It could be a crucial matchup when the time comes.