When LSU concluded non-conference play with five losses against suspect competition, it was clear that the Tigers were going to have to accomplish something special in the SEC to shed their underachiever label and avoid missing the NCAA tournament.
They took a big step toward that goal on Tuesday night in Baton Rouge when they followed up a road win at Vanderbilt by toppling the SEC's most storied program.
LSU clobbered ninth-ranked Kentucky 85-67, and oddly the Tigers didn't even require a big night from Ben Simmons to do it. Most of Simmons' 14 points and 10 rebounds came in the second half after LSU had already seized control of the game.
The biggest difference maker for LSU was actually 6-foot-6 slashing guard Tim Quarterman, who made an impact in all facets of the game for the Tigers. Quarterman scored 21 points mostly by attacking the rim. He also distributed effectively, hustled for loose balls and made an impact on the glass, finishing with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
LSU led by 10 points at halftime even though Simmons only logged nine first-half minutes and contributed just two points. Some big baskets from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray helped Kentucky get within four or five points a couple of times midway through the second half, but the Tigers answered every surge and eventually put the game away with one of their own during the final nine minutes.
That LSU could notch such a big win despite a rare ordinary performance from Simmons is an encouraging sign for the Tigers (9-5). It shows they've made strides after a humbling first six weeks of the season.
Quarterman is showing signs of learning how to play off ball and still contribute, a key for an LSU team that's at its best when Simmons is leading a fast break or creating from the high-post or the perimeter in a half-court set.
Keith Hornsby has returned from injury and provided leadership, perimeter defense and much-needed outside shooting, allowing the Tigers to create space for Simmons to operate in the middle of the floor.
Arizona transfer Craig Victor became eligible in mid-December and has provided interior scoring, rebounding and solid defense, all areas of need for LSU before he made his debut.
While that quartet combined for 59 points and 36 rebounds against Kentucky, LSU's victory wasn't all about its own improvement. Some of it was also a result of the Wildcats performing nothing like a top 10 team with championship aspirations.
Kentucky was disjointed and stagnant on offense in the first half as LSU packed in its defense, ran Murray off the 3-point arc and dared the other Wildcats to hit shots from the perimeter. The Wildcats were better in the second half offensively because Murray caught fire, but it didn't matter because they were absolutely inept at the other end of the floor, surrendering far too many baskets at the rim.
A primary culprit was the vanishing act from Kentucky's frontcourt. Marcus Lee picked up five fouls in five minutes, Alex Poythress fouled out with four points in 26 minutes and Skal Labissiere continued to look lost off the bench. His biggest contribution on a night when he scored only three points and grabbed only two rebounds? Goading Simmons into his second foul off the ball late in the first half.
It's far too soon to write Kentucky off, but the inconsistency of every player besides Ulis is certainly alarming.
It's also far too soon to declare that LSU has suddenly found itself, but the contributions of Simmons' supporting cast are undeniably a good sign.
Really, the only sweeping conclusion that could be made Tuesday was this: For one night, LSU put its non-conference struggles behind it and performed like the team we all thought it could be.
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