By LARRY VAUGHT
On his weekly radio show Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday’s LSU game in Rupp Arena was the “toughest ticket (to obtain for fans)” during his tenure at Kentucky because of LSU freshman Ben Simmons, the likely No. 1 pick in the June NBA draft.
On Thursday ESPN analyst Dick Vitale all but called the game a must-win for LSU (18-12, 11-6 SEC) if it wants to be in the NCAA Tournament.
“LSU has got to do some winning. They have to do something no one has done. No one has beaten Kentucky at Rupp (this year),” said Vitale. “They have got to go out and spring the upset. Pound them. They have got to find a way to win.”
He said Simmons as the No. 1 player in the country has “got to carry” the Tigers against UK if he wants in the NCAA or LSU will have to win at least two SEC Tournament games to even be in NCAA consideration.
“They have struggled all year long being up and down. They have to at least play them (UK) super tough. A win is almost like a knockout punch (for making the NCAA Tournament),” Vitale said.
LSU beat Kentucky 85-67 on Jan. 5 when Tim Quarterman had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Simmons, despite early foul trouble, had 14 points and 10 assists in 27 minutes. Craig Victor had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Against Missouri this week, Simmons had his sixth 20-10-5 game — 22 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists — of the season. It was his 21st double-double and fifth straight game of 20 or more points. Freshman Antonio Blakeney had 18 points, Quarterman 11 and Victor 10.
LSU coach Johnny Jones said the performance only added to Blakeney’s confidence.
“He’s very confident in himself. His teammates are confident in him as well. He’s done a great job of putting pressure on opponents and making extra passes and plays and forcing the defense to have to shift. Antonio has done a tremendous job and has shown tremendous growth in his playing,” Jones said.
While Missouri coach Kim Anderson said the Tigers had more than Simmons, he says not to doubt who makes the Tigers go.
“I think the thing that Ben does is he makes everyone else better. You go in and you try to double him or you try to help. Not only is he a good passer, but he’s a quick passer. He zips that thing in a hurry,” Anderson said.
Missouri forward Kevin Puryear cited Simmons’ strength and physical play as problems to defend.
“You don’t get the opportunity to play against the potential number one pick in the draft every day. So I just wanted to come out and play as hard as I could and do everything I could to help my team win. I’ve corralled point guards and he’s similar to a point guard. He’s quick,” Puryear said. “His skill set and physicality and unselfishness is what really makes him a great player.”
Vitale said he could not remember any former No. 1 draft picks who did not make the NCAA Tournament.
“That would be a major blow (for Simmons),” Vitale said. “But if they apply the knockout punch Saturday, they are in the tournament.”