In just his first season, coach Trent Johnson has given LSU some much-needed confidence. The Tigers have been particularly desperate for some moxie heading into games at Rupp Arena.
With a chance to clinch the SEC title, the 18th-ranked Tigers look to win on the road against Kentucky for the first time in over 20 years Saturday.
LSU (24-4, 12-1) had gone through consecutive losing seasons in the SEC before Johnson took over in April. Now, the Tigers have won nine straight and are a victory away from securing their first outright conference title since 2005-06.
“I’m so happy for these guys, you have no idea,” Johnson said. “I don’t believe in all that destiny stuff. This is a good basketball team. The thing I really appreciate about these guys is they speak from the heart and they have a sense of security.”
The Tigers, who have already won the SEC West, clinched at least a share of the overall conference crown with an 81-75 win over Florida on Tuesday night. LSU owns a three-game advantage over SEC East-leading South Carolina, and both teams have three contests left.
“Winning is always fun,” senior guard Marcus Thornton said. “Last year, we didn’t have the season like we wanted to have. Nobody but the guys in this locker room thought we could have a season like this.”
Last season included a 67-63 home loss to Kentucky (19-9, 8-5) on Feb. 16, 2008, LSU’s 18th defeat in this series’ last 20 games.
The Tigers have been especially bad at Rupp Arena, losing 11 straight since a 64-62 win Jan. 14, 1989. LSU is averaging 58.2 points and shooting 37.9 percent in its last six road games versus the Wildcats.
Kentucky is 12-4 at home this season, is fighting to extend a streak of 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances and has one of the nation’s leading scorers in Jodie Meeks (25.1 points per game).
LSU, however, is holding opponents to 65.1 points a contest and has won 12 in a row in SEC play for the first time since a 17-game run in 1980-81.
The Tigers are led by Thornton, who will face Meeks in a matchup of the SEC’s top two scorers. Thornton is averaging 20.9 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Thornton was held to nine points on 4-for-14 shooting in last season’s meeting with Kentucky. Meeks had six points, but he averaged just 8.8 that season.
Meeks will assuredly play a much larger role as the Wildcats try to bounce back from a 77-59 loss to South Carolina on Wednesday night. Kentucky shot a season-worst 34.5 percent (20-for-58) and committed 20 turnovers.
“We’ll be better on Saturday,” coach Billy Gillispie said. “The world is not ending.”
Meeks had 18 points but was overshadowed by Patrick Patterson, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds. The sophomore forward is averaging 18.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
Patterson had 14 points and five rebounds last season against LSU as Kentucky took a 78-22 lead in the series.
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