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Skal Labissiere's emergence makes Kentucky look more dangerous

LEXINGTON, Ky. –- Ben Simmons and Skal Labissiere were the consensus top two players in the 2015 recruiting class. They were teammates at the Nike Hoops Summit last spring, back when there was legitimate debate over which one would go No. 1 in the 2016 NBA draft.

Yet for most of this college basketball season, it was hard to believe they'd ever been mentioned in the same breath. Simmons put together an All-American-caliber season at LSU, a historic one for a freshman. Meanwhile, Labissiere could barely get off the bench for Kentucky.

With tournament time approaching, however, their fortunes could be tilting back toward each other. Labissiere got the upper hand on Simmons on Saturday, both individually and from a team perspective, as No. 22 Kentucky beat LSU, 94-77, at Rupp Arena.

The Tigers' loss further dented Simmons' chances of playing in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, Kentucky could be a serious threat to advance deep into March again if Labissiere's best week as a Wildcat is a sign of things to come.

Labissiere earned a surprise start on Tuesday at Florida -- his first since Dec. 19 -- and responded with 11 points and eight rebounds. On Saturday against LSU, he scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and added career highs in rebounds (nine) and blocked shots (six). In his previous nine games before this week, Labissiere had totaled only 27 points.

"He's just making shots and playing with confidence now," Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis said. "He's going to be the Skal that I knew he was and that everybody knew he was."

All season, John Calipari has searched for something, anything, from his front line while Ulis and Jamal Murray carried the scoring load from the backcourt. His bigs basically no-showed in a loss at Vanderbilt this past Sunday, which included an eight-minute, zero-point cameo by Labissiere. After that game, the coaching staff gathered the team's frontcourt players for a meeting in which they demanded more production.

Everyone expected more out of Labissiere this season, and as the recruiting hype fizzled, he got labeled as a massive disappointment. Labissiere said he doesn't really read or listen to the volume of Kentucky basketball coverage, but he admitted to losing confidence earlier this season. How could he not have?

"Here's a kid that's taken a lot of grief," Calipari said. "I'm really proud of him, because it's been hard."

Calipari has said that he made a mistake earlier this season in trying to mold the 6-foot-11, 225-pound Labissiere into a more traditional post player. On Saturday, Labissiere did most of his damage while shooting jumpers from his preferred spot near the free throw line, though he did show off a couple of nice moves inside.

"I don't feel like he screwed me over," Labissiere said of Calipari's early strategy. "It was really on me. I was learning how to play lower in the post, getting stronger, basically.

"It was tough. But at the end of the day, I had to bounce back, and that's what I did."

Any semblance of an inside presence will make Kentucky a scary team to face in the NCAA tournament. Junior Marcus Lee also had one of his best games of late, scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Forward Alex Poythress, a rare Calipari regular to actually celebrate senior day, had 12 more points. In the Wildcats' 85-67 loss at LSU on Jan. 5, Lee, Labissiere and Poythress combined for only seven points and six rebounds.

All the frontcourt guys really have to do is make open shots created by Ulis. Of the Wooden Award finalist's career-high 14 assists Saturday, 11 of them went to Lee, Labissiere or Poythress. Six of them resulted in dunks.

"This team can be great with the way our backcourt has been playing all year and with these guys stepping up now," Ulis said.

Simmons' season is trending the wrong way. Before Saturday's game, ESPN reported that LSU did not certify its freshman star for the Wooden Award because of academic issues. While Simmons put up another stuffed stat line against Kentucky (17 points, 11 rebounds, 7 steals, 4 assists), he said after the game that he felt "a little annoyed and frustrated." He and the Tigers are probably bound for the NIT unless they can win next week's SEC tournament in Nashville, Tennessee.

Simmons' status on the top of the NBA draft board remains unchanged, at least. His one-time teammate Labissiere is finally making a move back up. Perhaps not before taking the Wildcats on a long postseason run.

"He looked a lot better today," Simmons said. "He looked like he wasn’t worrying about anything."