John Wall is “having fun” again, and he might have even more at the expense of LSU.
The top team in the SEC faces the conference’s worst as Wall leads fourth-ranked Kentucky against the Tigers on Saturday.
The Wildcats (21-1, 6-1) opened the season 19-0 before being upset 68-62 at South Carolina on Jan. 26 - a loss that knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the AP poll. They responded four days later with an 85-72 victory over then-No. 21 Vanderbilt.
Wall, though, turned in a season-worst 4-of-12 shooting performance and tied a season high with seven turnovers. In the aftermath, he said he “wasn’t having any fun” and that he was “frustrated” while also claiming he tries to ignore criticism from coach John Calipari.
The freshman guard backpedaled from his comments following a meeting with Calipari, who used the episode as “a teaching point.” Calipari explained to Wall that he’s not the first phenom to struggle, citing Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans - each of whom played one season for him at Memphis before leaving for the NBA.
Maybe the pep talk helped because Wall played better Tuesday as he made 6 of 10 shots, including all three from beyond the arc, and scored 17 points while handing out seven assists in an 85-75 win over 25th-ranked Mississippi.
“It felt great to have the fun back,” said Wall, who left the court to a standing ovation from the home crowd. “I like to make plays, get the crowd into it. I still have a lot of work to do. I just want to be the floor general. This is the best I’ve done running the team this year. It feels good and hopefully all the other stuff will go away. But I am back to having fun and winning games.”
Wall leads the Wildcats with an average of 16.9 points and his 6.8 assists per game lead the conference.
His team shares the SEC’s best record with Vanderbilt but already has defeated the Commodores and has a better overall record. LSU (9-13, 0-8) has the league’s worst overall record and is the only SEC team without a conference win.
The Tigers are trying to avoid their first nine-game losing streak since Jan. 27-Feb. 24, 2001.
They won both meetings last season, but Kentucky didn’t have Wall or fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins, who posted a fifth consecutive double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds Tuesday.
The 6-foot-11 forward is averaging 19.6 points and 12.0 boards over the last five games, and he’s second in the conference with 9.8 rebounds per game.
Cousins was a big reason the Wildcats had a 44-30 scoring advantage in the paint against Mississippi. He’s taller than any LSU player and will likely find himself matched up with 6-7 Tasmin Mitchell, the team leader with 17.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Mitchell had 17 rebounds Thursday, but was held to 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting and missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 6 seconds left in a 59-54 loss to Tennessee.
“We just kept fighting and fighting,” coach Trent Johnson said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump and give ourselves a margin of error so to speak. I’m pleased with the effort, but 0-8 is 0-8 and 9-13 is 9-13.”
Bo Spencer scored 25 points in the latest loss, increasing his average to 15.0 per game. The junior scored 16 in a 67-58 win over Kentucky in the second round of last year’s SEC tournament.
Mitchell is averaging 16.0 points and 6.3 boards in four meetings with the Wildcats.