Johnny O’Bryant III’s teeth kept chomping on a piece of gum, and a wry grin stretched across his face when asked for his thoughts on venturing into Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
The sophomore chuckled, perhaps revealing as much about his state of mind as LSU’s reward for its first Southeastern Conference victory: a visit to the Wildcats, who until a November loss to Baylor had built a 54-game home winning streak under coach John Calipari.
“It’s something I definitely want to experience,” O’Bryant said. “You’ve just got to stay even-keeled and be ready to play a good ballgame.”
The outcome for the Tigers (10-6, 1-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday against UK (12-6, 3-2) might influence their feelings about the Big Blue Nation and battling a youth-laden Wildcats squad comprised of Calipari’s latest crew of potential one-and-done freshmen to pass through Lexington.
And it will depend, too, on avoiding the early hole that the Tigers have grown accustomed to digging, such as the eight-point deficit in the first five minutes Jan. 9 at Auburn or the 15-point chasm eight minutes into their victory Wednesday against Texas A&M.
“It seems like most games all year we’ve had bad starts,” O’Bryant said. “Hopefully this is one game where we come out aggressive and hit them in the mouth first.”
With Kentucky coming off a bruising 59-55 loss Tuesday at Alabama, it seems far from ideal to allow a motivated Wildcats team — pegged in the preseason as the SEC favorite — to build an early lead, stir the crowd and force an LSU offense shooting a conference-worst 36.9 percent to play from behind.
Controlling their surroundings might also call into question the logic of pressing extensively — even after forcing the Aggies into 24 turnovers — to avoid allowing the crowd to froth as the Wildcats get into the open floor or have looks off the press break.
On Wednesday, Calipari said he wished Alabama had pressed instead of playing a set five defensively because he felt the Wildcats’ lineup of four freshmen and a sophomore is better equipped for that style.
But there’s little doubt LSU and UK, both of whom average around 71 possessions per game, want to play fast. So coach Johnny Jones doesn’t plan on tweaking his program’s identity.
“We won’t have to speed Kentucky up,” he said. “They’ll play fast. They’ll get it up and push it up the floor to look for some quick and easy scoring opportunities, and it will be the same on our end.”
Sophomore guard Anthony Hickey is aware of Rupp’s lore, having won a Kentucky state title in 2011 with Christian County High School in a 65-63 victory. On Saturday, Hickey, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native, will trot on to the floor for the first time since then, but he isn’t daunted by the scene awaiting him.
“I already know how it is on that big stage,” he said. “You’ve just go to come ready to play.”
What that entails is clear to O’Bryant, too.
‘It’s about setting the tone first,” he said, “and who comes out first aggressive.”