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Special Convergence of College Sports Calendar Starts With LSU-Kentucky

LSU point guard Anthony Hickey, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, will try to knock off his home state team.LSU point guard Anthony Hickey, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, will try to knock off his home state team.

This next week is a magical time of year on the college sports calendar.

Basketball season for both men and women is reaching the midpoint of conference play. The contenders and pretenders are starting to separate themselves. In just 64 days, four teams will take the floor in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for semifinal Saturday of the Men's Final Four.

Meanwhile, the climax to football's "second season" – recruiting – is nearly here. Officially, Wednesday begins the period in which high school football players may sign national letters-of-intent with colleges and universities around the country. But since 99 percent of those signatures will come on Wednesday, we know it as National Signing Day.

Baseball, at least on the Division I level, begins Friday afternoon with the first team practices of the spring semester, just three weeks away from the first of 56 games for LSU, Tulane and others.

In other words, the four highest interest college sports in these parts, all with major activity, all at the same time.

But for now, let's focus on hoops, in which we have a rather intriguing game in southeast Louisiana this weekend.

In this very space last week, we talked about the team that was undefeated and No. 1 as of last week, Syracuse, heading to South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame. The Irish under Digger Phelps were giant-killers, and Mike Brey's team brought back some of that magic by knocking off the Orange.

So there is a new No. 1 this week – Kentucky, who just happens to be traveling to Baton Rouge to take on LSU Saturday afternoon.

If the Wildcats aren't in the Crescent City nine weeks from now, I'd be shocked. Unlike football, where "every game counts" (or so they say), Saturday's result won't have a significant impact on the quest for John Calipari's club to reach the Final Four. But it is a reminder of some past classic matchups between the Wildcats and the Tigers.

Start with Feb. 11, 1978, when the eventual national champs visited Baton Rouge. In spite of all five LSU starters fouling out, Dale Brown's team pulled out a 95-94 victory in overtime, a win that would trigger a three-year run for the Tigers that culminated with a Final Four trip in 1981.

Saturday will mark the eighth time a No. 1-ranked Kentucky team has played LSU. That game 34 years ago is the only time the Tigers have won.

Nearly 16 years later to the day, while much of southeast Louisiana was winding down their Mardi Gras celebrations in 1994, I witnessed one of the strangest college basketball games I have ever seen, when a Rick Pitino-coached Kentucky squad rallied from a 31-point deficit in the final 12 minutes to defeat LSU 99-95.

Kentucky will be a prohibitive favorite over Trent Johnson's club on Saturday afternoon inside the PMAC. But don't let that keep you from either attending in person or tuning in.

First of all, Kentucky is an immensely talented team – probably the most talented team in the nation. Many of these guys will have NBA careers. Who knows – they might go from wearing Wildcat blue to Creole blue.

Secondly, think about what makes the first Thursday and Friday of March Madness the great event that it is. It's more than 32 games in a span of 36 hours. It's the opportunity for Cinderella to show up at the dance – that No. 13, 14, 15 or even 16 seed to pull off the unthinkable.

Can LSU step into that role? We'll find out at about 5:00 Saturday afternoon.

 
Video from LSU Athletics