No. 1 Kentucky awakens in time vs. LSU

It’s the Kentucky Invitational Tournament.

Well, that’s what this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament should be called with John Calipari’s mighty Wildcats so exponentially more talented than any other in this top-heavy league that even Stephen Hawking couldn’t figure out the math.

Their march to the tournament’s championship crown, much like their undefeated run to the league’s regular-season title, should be like this party-hearty city’s nickname: The Big Easy.

At least, that’s what you would expect in March from college basketball’s top-ranked team, one guaranteed to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and probably the top overall seed. And one that, by the way, has four potential first-round NBA draft picks.

But LSU guard Andre Stringer had a message for the rest of college basketball after his eighth-seeded team forced Kentucky into a sloppy, mistake-filled first half Friday afternoon and led for several minutes of the second half before the Wildcats made a late push for an unconvincing 60-51 victory in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.

“They’re beatable,” said Stringer, whose team only trailed Kentucky 25-24 at halftime.

And while Big Blue Nation can’t fathom anyone other than their beloved Wildcats cutting down the nets here less than a month from now, it has plenty of reason for concern — minutes-long lapses, an often stagnant offense and a gambling defense that relies heavily on star freshman forward Anthony Davis to block shots.

Plus, there are always Calipari’s deficiencies when it comes to Xs and Os, especially in the NCAA tournament. But the biggest worry could be what the veteran coach admitted about his team’s struggles against LSU, which entered Friday having lost three of its past four games and was beaten by 24 points at home by Kentucky in late January.

“They were physical and we were getting bumped and we couldn’t hold on to balls,” said Calipari, whose team will take a 31-1 record into Saturday’s semifinal game against fourth-seeded Florida. “It just got too physical for guys. I had a couple of guys I couldn’t leave in the game.”

If Friday was tough for Kentucky, just wait until it faces a Syracuse or Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. Both are the definition of physical with their grind-it-out offenses and daunting, body-sacrificing defenses.

But after listening to Kentucky freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s explanation for his team’s inconsistent play against LSU, the mental aspect just might be as big of a problem as the physical for his youthful team.

“It was a new arena and stuff like that,” said Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored a game-high 19 points and admitted to being nervous. “It’s our first time.”

There will be plenty more new arenas and firsts in the next few weeks for Kidd-Gilchrist and Kentucky’s young roster, which only has one upperclassman who plays significant minutes in senior guard Darius Miller. Only when you play in the NCAA tournament, you usually don’t win after a lethargic performance like the Wildcats had Friday — with 18 turnovers, one 3-pointer and being outscored 30-26 in the paint.

“We came out lackadaisical, wasn’t playing any defense, let them do whatever they wanted,” said Davis, who had 12 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, much of which came after foul trouble in the first half.

But all of Kentucky’s reasoning still doesn’t explain its lack of movement on offense against LSU, a frequent issue this season that usually leads to a bad shot against multiple defenders. It didn’t doom the Wildcats on Friday, but they are well aware that it’s an issue.

“There’s no excuse for it,” freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer said of his team’s offensive breakdowns. “In late-clock situations, it’s people not knowing what we’re running or something like that.”

This wouldn’t be the first time a Calipari-coached team has had that dilemma.

Defensively, though, questions also remain about this Kentucky team. On this day, it was pounded by LSU in transition, a problem magnified by the Wildcats’ 18 turnovers, which led to them being outscored 14-2 in fast-break points.

Even worse, Stringer thinks Kentucky’s on-ball defense is “shaky,” a weakness he believes can be exploited by better-matched opponents who can score off the dribble outside the lane to avoid Davis.

“They’ll have trouble with teams like that,” he said. “I think they rely on their guys just blocking shots.”

Yet when it comes to discussing the obvious talent discrepancy between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC, the Wildcats become fundamentally defensive. “I still feel like there’s talented teams in the league,” Miller said. “We’ve got to continue to play. We came out lackadaisical today.”

That’s been a more common theme for the Wildcats in recent weeks, but even if it continues that should hardly be a roadblock to them winning the Kentucky Invitational.

Just don’t count on that working in the NCAA tournament.