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Keith Taylor: Stopping LSU star Simmons main focus for UK in first SEC road game

In its Southeastern Conference opener, Kentucky shut down the league’s top scorer. Tonight, the ninth-ranked Wildcats will face one of the top players in the conference.

Even though LSU (8-5, 1-0) has endured a roller-coaster ride in its first 13 games, standout Ben Simmons has been impressive during the first two months of his collegiate career.

 Kentucky coach John Calipari and the Wildcats take on LSU tonight in Baton Rouge (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari and the Wildcats take on LSU tonight in Baton Rouge (Bill Thiry Photo)

The 6-foot-10 Simmons, once a recruiting target for Kentucky, has recorded a double-double in 10 games, including the last eight and tallied 36 points in a 90-82 win over Vanderbilt last week in Nashville. He scored 43 in a 119-108 victory over North Florida a month ago and has led the team in scoring nine times.

“(He is) a unique basketball player,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said Monday. “If you guard him with a big, he has the ability to play like a point guard. If you put a smaller player on him, he has the ability to play like a big. He’s a challenge.”

SEC Standings

Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team has won three straight over the Tigers, including a thrilling 71-69 triumph a year ago in Baton Rouge, hasn’t finalized a plan on how the Wildcats (11-2, 1-0) will defend Simmons. However, the Kentucky coach said his team can’t rely on just one option on the defensive end.

“We’ve got to be who we are and maybe make them change, but you better have a game plan A and B against him because he can go for 40 (points),” Calipari said. “He is a 6-(foot)-9 point-guard-ish guy that will go inside, score next to the basket, make free throws so you can’t foul him, and in transition, when he brings it up, he’s a great playmaker.”

Several of Calipari’s players have expressed an interest in guarding Simmons. The leading candidates to defend the LSU star include Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere.

“We want to throw a bunch of players at him that are going to compete against him, put pressure on him, make everything that he does hard — just compete,” Payne said. “I’m sure our guys will feel obligated to go at him. He gets a lot of hype. Everybody considers him hands down the best player in the country, so we should be excited to play against him.”

Payne said the game plan against LSU will likely be similar to the one the Wildcats employed against Ole Miss. Standout Stefan Moody, matched his average with 23 points but managed just eight in the first half as Kentucky built a big first-half lead and cruised to victory.

“(We) just (have to) wear them out,” Payne said. (We have to) just keep the pressure on them for 40 minutes defensively. Hopefully over the course of the game, they get fatigued and we got at them.”

Kentucky has two players who have past history with Simmons. Freshman center Skal Labissiere was a teammate of Simmons, while Briscoe played on opposing teams on the AAU circuit.

“He’s a really good passer,” Labissiere said. “His basketball IQ is off the chart. We played really well together on the court.”

Although containing Simmons is a factor in the first of two straight road games for Kentucky, Labissiere said the Wildcats can’t dwell on stopping the league’s third-leading scorer.

“It’s about our team going against LSU,” Labissiere said. “So it’s about us going to get a win when we go down there. So that’s been the focus for us.”
Briscoe agreed.

“We’re focused on us,” he said. “We’re going to treat this like any other game.”

Hawkins update

Calipari said Monday that junior Dominique Hawkins, who hurt his ankle in the second half of Kentucky’s win over Ole Miss, didn’t practice Sunday and didn’t think he would be able to go Tuesday.

Game tracker: Kentucky at LSU, 9 p.m., tonight. TV/Radio: ESPN, 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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