January 04, 2016

While Kentucky's Tyler Ulis is proving he belongs on the big stage, LSU's Ben Simmons will finally get his chance in the spotlight against a Top 25 team.

The freshman phenom will face a ranked opponent for the first time when the ninth-ranked Wildcats visit Baton Rouge for a Tuesday night SEC matchup.

Simmons is demonstrating why he was chosen as the conference's preseason player of the year, averaging 20.5 points and a league-high 13.1 rebounds. However, his first major test will come against Kentucky (11-2, 1-0), which has regrouped from a mediocre stretch behind Ulis' strong play.

The Wildcats lost their only true road game 87-77 against UCLA on Dec. 3, and after wins over Eastern Kentucky and Arizona State, they fell 74-67 to Ohio State in New York on Dec. 19. Ulis has helped a turnaround into SEC play, though, by combining for 41 points and 18 assists in a 75-73 win over No. 16 Louisville on Dec. 26 and Saturday's 83-61 conference-opening rout of Ole Miss.

The sophomore point guard turned in 20 points, 10 assists and six steals against the Rebels as the Wildcats improved to 7-0 when he scores at least 12.

''He is out to prove who he is," coach John Calipari said. "I just want a team full of guys that want that.''

Ulis averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists in 37 games off the bench last season with his minutes chewed up by a group of current NBA players. With the starting point guard spot and a healthy dose of minutes, Ulis has lifted his numbers to 13.4 points and 5.9 assists per game.

Ulis finished with two points on 1-of-6 shooting and three assists in 26 minutes during a 71-69 win at LSU on Feb. 10, a rare test for the Wildcats last season.

The Tigers were one of the few teams Kentucky had trouble with on the way to a 31-0 regular-season record. LSU used a 21-2 second-half run to challenge the Wildcats, but a last-second 3-pointer wouldn't fall.

It was Kentucky's eighth win in the last nine games of this series. The Wildcats have won four of five at Baton Rouge.

LSU (8-5, 1-0) has been inconsistent this season but has won four of five - the outlier a 77-71 loss to Wake Forest on Dec. 29. That was the Tigers' first home defeat after winning their first seven games at Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Simmons helped LSU regroup with 36 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday's 90-82 win at Vanderbilt. That was the third-most points by a major-conference freshman in his league debut since 1996-97.

The 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward made 10 of 15 shots and 16 of 19 free throws - and he still finished seven points off his career high.

The last major conference freshman to score 30-plus points in each of his first two league games was Texas' Kevin Durant in 2006-07.

"To do that your first night out in this type of environment here says a lot about him," said coach Johnny Jones, whose team will look to open SEC play 2-0 for the first time since 2010-11. "But certainly not surprised about his play, and not a lot surprises me about him. I've been around him enough now."

Simmons' 16 free throws were the most by an LSU player in an SEC game since Chris Jackson made 16 at Florida in December of 1988. That was also Jackson's first SEC game.

The status of Kentucky junior Dominique Hawkins is unclear after he left Saturday's game with an ankle injury. X-rays reportedly revealed no breaks. Hawkins had a career-high 13 points against Louisville.

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