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Keith Taylor: Kentucky sets sights on SEC title in regular-season finale against ‘desperate’ Tigers

The Southeastern Conference race is far from over but all will be settled Saturday.

Kentucky, currently in a two-way tie with Texas A&M for the top spot, hosts LSU, which has an outside shot of winning the league title with a little luck, coupled with a win over the Wildcats. The Tigers (18-12, 11-6 SEC) defeated the Wildcats (22-8, 12-5) 85-67 a month ago in Baton Rouge.

Kentucky senior Alex Poythress will be honored prior to Saturday's game against LSU (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky senior Alex Poythress will be honored prior to Saturday’s game against LSU (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari knows the stakes are high and is expecting a challenge from the Tigers.

“We’re going to play a desperate team, but I’m not worried about it because every team we play is desperate,” Calipari said. “Every single team, every night at home, on the road, is desperate. And they’re going to be desperate. It’s good for us. That’s what prepares us for March and that’s why our teams historically have played well in March. Because we never get an off night. Every game means something.”

Even though LSU already owns a win over the Wildcats this season, Tigers coach Johnny Jones said the first meeting has no bearing on the regular-season finale for both teams.

“It will be a different game,” the LSU coach said. “It’s on the road. It’s at their place. They are a better basketball team than what we played on that date. They’ve played extremely well down the stretch.”

Kentucky can win the league outright with a win over the Tigers and a Vanderbilt victory over Texas A&M. If the Aggies defeat the Commodores and Kentucky beats LSU, the two teams will share the title and Texas A&M will get the top seed by virtue of a tiebreaker, while the Wildcats will get the No. 2 seed.

Senior sendoff

The regular-season finale will be the last home game for Kentucky senior Alex Poythress, who will be honored prior to tipoff.

Poythress’ career has been hampered by injuries during the past two years. He missed the final 28 games last season because of a torn ACL and missed five games in February because of knee issues on his non-surgical knee.

“It’s been a long ride,” Poythress said. “I’m just thankful to be playing the game and just humbled to be in this situation.”

Since his return to the lineup late last month, Poythress has scored 26 points in the past three games, including a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Florida earlier this week.

“He’s had a heck of a career on all fronts,” Calipari said. “He’s made us all proud in the classroom (and) on the court. I wish he hadn’t gotten hurt and I wish he was already in the NBA. So does he. It happens sometimes and you gotta play the cards that were dealt. That’s what he’s doing and he’s doing it well.”

Regardless of the outcome and what happens in next week’s conference tournament, Poythress said the Wildcats have higher goals in mind.

“Our ultimate goal is to win a national championship,” Poythress said. “That’s what we’re chasing here. We’re chasing titles. We’re still working on our goal toward the end of the year to come out on top.”

Willis to return

Calipari said Derek Willis is set to return to the lineup this weekend. Willis has missed the past three games because of an ankle sprain.

“I don’t think I’ll start him – I might, you know me,” Calipari said. “I don’t really care, but I doubt if I start him, but it was great having him out there (Thursday).”

Skal Labissiere, who scored 11 points and had eight rebounds in Kentucky’s win over Florida earlier this week, regressed in practice Thursday and Calipari isn’t sure if the freshman center will make his second straight start against the Tigers.

“He was not real good (Thursday) so I’m going to watch him today,” Calipari said. “Whether I start him or not probably will be dependent on what I (saw Friday).”

Scouting the Tigers

LSU is coming off an 80-71 win over Missouri in its final home game of the season earlier this week. The Tigers are led by freshman sensation Ben Simmons, who averages 19.7 points per game. In the first meeting against the Wildcats, Simmons scored 14 points.

After defeating Texas A&M on Feb. 13, the Tigers lost three straight but rebounded to post wins over Florida and Missouri to close out the home portion of the schedule.

“LSU is a really good basketball team,” Calipari said. “They’ve got great talent. Obviously in Ben (Simmons) they’ve got one of the, if not the best player in college basketball. (Antonio) Blakeney is playing better. (Tim) Quarterman gave us fits last time. Their big guys they rebound and they’re tough. They’ve had some down times. So has Texas A&M. So (have we) and so has Vandy. We’ve all had a time or two where we haven’t played well. But at the end of the day, they’re still the elite or one of the elite teams in our league.”

Lee honored

For the second straight season, Kentucky junior Marcus Lee was named to the SEC Community Service team on Friday.

Lee has given more than 100 hours to community service, including God’s Pantry, the Salvation Army and Samaritans Feet.

Lee is averaging 6.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and has recorded three double-doubles this season.

Game tracker: LSU at Kentucky, 2 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS Sports, 98.1 FM WBUL

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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