Kentucky coach John Calipari. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 6:17 PMThe first time he walked into Kentucky’s famed Rupp Arena, Johnny Jones was a mere LSU freshman fresh out of DeRidder, tagging along with a veteran LSU team that was bound for the Final Four.
He hasn’t forgotten.
The 1981 Tigers had won their first 17 Southeastern Conference games that season before losing as a last-second shot by Howard Carter came up short 73-71 to end the regular season.
“I still think Sam Bowie fouled Howard Carter,” Jones said like it happened yesterday. “They didn’t call it. I just thought I’d let you know.”
Over the years not many visitors to Rupp have caught a break in the haze of what has been described as a Big Blue Mist engulfing the 24,000-seat arena.
“Just how loud, how ruckus of a crowd it was,” Jones also recalled of his first trip. “The great fan base. To have that many people in an arena … and the sea of blue that they have. I thought it was pretty neat.”
Jones made three more Rupp trips as a player, never getting a victory, although later as an assistant coach under Dale Brown the Tigers enjoyed a fair amount of success in the SEC’s toughest venue.
But this afternoon will be the first time Jones brings a team in as a head coach when LSU plays defending national champion Kentucky at 3 p.m.
“It’s something we’ll embrace and look forward to,” Jones said.
LSU, which visits Rupp Arena every other year, last won in Lexington in 2009 in a game that clinched LSU’s last SEC regular-season title.
At least the Tigers (10-6, 1-4 SEC) bring in a little momentum after breaking through with their first conference victory of the season, 58-54 over Texas A&M on Wednesday.
“It was good. It was something that we really needed,” Jones said of overcoming an early 19-4 deficit against the Aggies. “It’s going to be a process. That’s part of it, and I’m very comfortable with the way they played. We have to quickly turn our attention to Kentucky.”
Kentucky (12-6, 3-2) figures to be angry, coming off a 59-55 road loss at Alabama on Tuesday.
The Wildcats, reloading with A-list talent as usual under head coach John Calipari, start three freshmen and a sophomore. As opposed to recent years, the transition hasn’t always been a smooth one.
“They’re (high school) All-Americans,” Jones said of the Cats. “Tremendous basketball players. They’ve got a chance to be really successful.
“I’m sure (Calipari) wants them to play a certain way. Look at what he’s done in the past. The group of guys last year that were young, they wind up winning a national championship.
“These guys are coming in on the heels of that, so the expectations are high for them.”
One problem LSU has had since conference play began on Jan. 9 has been dictating tempo for Jones’ up-tempo offense. That won’t be a problem today, which might be the problem.
“I can assure you we won’t have to speed Kentucky up,” Jones said. “They’ll play fast. They’ll get it up, push the floor and look for some easy scoring or quick opportunities.
“They will try to take advantage of every missed shot and every loose ball and try to push it and get after you. That’s just their style of play.”