Sunday, February 29, 2004

Kentucky, LSU heading in opposite directions

Tigers are coming off three straight lopsided losses

By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - A lot can change in two weeks, as evidenced by the fortunes of LSU and Kentucky.

On Feb. 14, LSU posted its best win of the season, 73-70 at Florida, and the Tigers jumped into the rankings two days later at No. 24. Also on the 14th, Kentucky lost for the second time this season to Georgia, a team struggling to stay above .500, and questions arose about the Wildcats' ability to play physical basketball when necessary.

Kentucky quickly answered those questions, as the ninth-ranked Wildcats (20-4, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) have put together three of their best games of the season, including a 92-60 rout of Tennessee on Wednesday in which all five starters scored in double figures.

The Wildcats, who will visit LSU (17-7, 7-6) Sunday, have clinched at least a share of the SEC East division title. Entering the weekend, Kentucky trailed Mississippi State by one game in the overall SEC race. Mississippi State played at Vanderbilt on Saturday night.

Since beating Florida, LSU has lost three straight games, all by lopsided margins, and fallen out of the rankings. The streak started with an 80-68 loss at home to Auburn, a team Kentucky beat on the road by nine points three days later. Road trips to Vanderbilt (a 74-54 loss) and No. 7 Mississippi State (an 84-58 loss) have done nothing to help LSU's confidence.

"We've got to get back to doing what we were doing when we were able to win five games in a row," LSU coach John Brady said Thursday. "Somewhere between the Florida game and the last three games we lost our continuity. We've got to spend some time the next two days to figure out a way to get that back. Hopefully we can get our confidence level back to where it was. We've got to get back to stopping people and rebounding better."

A healthy Jaime Lloreda would help both those causes. Lloreda, LSU's leading scorer and the SEC's leading rebounder, missed the Vanderbilt game with a bruised left heel, suffered early during the Auburn game. He returned against Mississippi State but struggled even as he recorded a double double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Despite numerous injury problems, Lloreda is averaging 16.9 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.

"He's as good an athlete as there is in the country," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said of Lloreda.

The LSU game begins a season-ending stretch for Kentucky in which the Wildcats also must travel to South Carolina and host Florida, teams that have been ranked for much of the season.

"We have to play and I don't have anything to do with the scheduling," Smith said. "At this point, you focus on what you have to do to make sure your players are healthy and that they are playing at their maximum potential. Their execution is going to have to be better. I would like to have all three games at home, but you can't do that."

The Wildcats also have adjusted to a changed starting lineup. When leading scorer Gerald Fitch was sidelined with a hand injury, Antwain Barbour took his place in the lineup and has averaged 9.3 points per game in six starts. Fitch, who missed three games, now brings a 14.8-point scoring average off the bench.

While Kentucky is a veteran team - four seniors and a junior are among the Wildcats' top six players - LSU counts five freshmen among its top nine players. Lloreda is the only senior who sees significant minutes.

"They have a chance to put another notch in their belt and position themselves to have a good year in the conference," Smith said. "They have a lot of things to play for. With Jaime back healthy I think they'll be ready to play."

No. 9 UK at LSU

Tipoff: 4 p.m. today, Pete Maravich Assembly Center (14,164), Baton Rouge, La.

Records: UK 20-4 (10-3 SEC), LSU 17-7 (7-6).

Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).

TV: Chs. 12, 7.

Series: UK leads 73-21.

Line: UK by 2 1/2.


Kelenna AzubuikeSo.6-510.6
Chuck HayesJr.6-611.0
Erik DanielsSr.6-814.9
Antwain BarbourSr.6-54.9
Cliff HawkinsSr.6-19.5
Coach: Tubby Smith (184-51, seventh season; 308-113 overall).


Antonio HudsonJr.6-410.0
Brandon BassFr.6-812.5
Jaime LloredaSr.6-916.9
Darrel MitchellSo.5-1111.6
Xavier WhippleJr.6-24.3
Coach: John Brady (119-88, seventh season; 208-165 overall).

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