Tangle of frontcourts expected for LSU, UK

On Tuesday, LSU’s Jordan Mickey and Kentucky’s Julius Randle stage a reunion at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Two years ago, Mickey’s former high school home in Grace Prep and Randle’s Prestonwoord Christian Academy met in the finals at the City of Palms Classic.

Occasionally, their respective AAU programs crossed paths on the summer grassroots basketball circuit, but hailing from the Metroplex didn’t forge any particular bond.

“We talked a little bit here and there,” Mickey said.

So if the meeting between a pair of elite freshmen feels devoid of feeling, well, there’s not much mutual history simmering underneath the match-up between two of the Southeastern Conference’s best frontcourts in LSU (12-6, 3-3) and No. 11 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1) at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“To me, nothing changes,” Mickey said. “I don’t look at the name across the front of the jersey.”

But circumstances certainly flipped from a year ago, when LSU traveled to Rupp Arena with Johnny O’Bryant III as its lone option in the lane.

Watching O’Bryant, who scored 21 points and tugged down 11 rebounds, slog away inside against now-departed center Nerlens Noel and current sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein drove home the Tigers lack of size and length.

Now that’s no longer a problem, and it has UK coach John Calipari’s undivided attention.

Naturally, O’Bryant creates the same bind for Kentucky as he does for every team.

If you leave him in solo situations against a lone big on the block, he can bruise and thump to get good position and power to the rim.

Double teams allow him to pitch the ball out, while his face up game — O’Bryant shots 43.3 percent on midrange jumpers — adds another wrinkle.

“What Johnny’s doing for Johnny is giving them space to play different ways,” Calipari said. “He’s putting them in short-corners and shooting jumpers. He’s putting him in the high post.”

And what about Mickey, who averages 13.0 points and 7.2 rebounds but doesn’t have plays run for him?

“Mickey is just kind of roaming around down there,” Calipari said. “Every time they need a basket, a shot goes up and he’s there tipping it in.”

Throw in five-star prospect Jarell Martin, who is averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds off the bench in SEC play, and LSU features enough in terms of talent to match the luminaries on UK’s roster.

Which only make sense given both signed consensus top-10 recruiting classes.

“They’re the caliber of guys that year in and year out that Kentucky has been able to attract to their school,” Jones said. “When you have guys with their type of length that can score, run the floor, that’s what they’ve had.”

Yet Calipari may have the best post player in Randle, who averages 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Wildcats. The five-star product handles 29.0 percent of UK’s possessions, takes 23.0 percent of the Wildcats’ shots while on the floor and is so aggressive he leads the SEC by drawing 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.com.

If not for the NBA’s one-and-done rule, Randle would likely be securing paychecks for his services.

“We probably wouldn’t be watching a guy like Julius Randle in the college ranks,” Jones said. “He’s just a phenom in high school, and he certainly hasn’t done anything to discount that while he’s been at Kentucky.”

But Randle, who takes nearly 75 percent of shots at the rim, doesn’t lumber or loaf. The 6-9, 250-pound big man can run the floor and handle the ball in transition for the Wildcats.

“Randle’s quite a load down low on the block,” Mickey said. “He’s can step out as well. He has good skills a way from the basket.”

Naturally, it figures O’Bryant will draw the assignment, but his recent struggles with foul trouble mean Mickey, a four-star product, and McDonald’s All-American Jarell Martin will take their turn at checking Randle.

Cauley-Stein remains largely a defensive presence, averaging just 8.0 points but leading the SEC at 3.4 blocks per game.

“He’s a strong guy,” Mickey said. “If he gets deep post position, he’s likely to score the ball. We’re just going to have to try and keep him away from the basket.”

Over the past two weeks, though, the 7-footer has struggled, putting up barely three points and three rebounds per game as opponents get physical against him inside.

But as Cauley-Stein has flagged, Alex Poythress’ emergence off the bench offsets it. Over the past four games, he’s posted 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, numbers that translate to almost 18.3 points and 8.1 rebounds for minutes.

“There’s just no drop off,” Jones said.

Fortunately, the same might be said of what Jones has as his disposal.