On offense, Kentucky abandoned its uptempo style for a half-court perimeter game designed to keep the ball as far from O'Neal as possible. On defense, the Wildcats planted 6'8" Jamal Mashburn behind O'Neal and 6'7" Deron Feldhaus in front of him. Oh, yeah, another guy or two also sagged inside whenever possible, meaning that sometimes O'Neal had as many as four defenders stationed around him.
No matter. LSU made seven of 12 three-point attempts in the first half, and anytime Kentucky dared take the ball inside, O'Neal either smashed it or forced ugly trajectories. The halftime score was Tigers 34, Wildcats 23. The game was, for all intents and purposes, over.
For LSU, the most heartening thing was that it could win easily despite such outrageous tactics to negate O'Neal. That freshman forward Clarence (Hail To) Ceaser had a team-leading 21 points (along with seven steals) and senior guard Justin Anderson added 12 means future opponents won't be able to beat the Tigers simply by smothering O'Neal.
"Some people think we're a one-man team," O'Neal said. "They haven't realized yet that there's a lot more out there than me. I don't need to score 29. As long as LSU is winning, I'll be happy."
At the very least, these Tigers deserve to be considered a factor in the hunt for the national title. Even Duke's Christian Laettner, for all his myriad talents, can't make plays like the one O'Neal made late in the first half against Kentucky: Playing defense, Shaquille reached in and snatched the ball from Wildcat guard John Pelphrey. Then he served as the ball-handling middle man in a three-on-one break. When he reached the key and seemed ready to dish off the ball, O'Neal changed his mind and took off from about the free throw line for the most spectacular dunk...but the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced back toward midcourt.
"I was going to pass it off," O'Neal said, "but I saw the defensive player take a step backward, so I just decided to go for it."
Smart kid, that defensive player. It's extremely unwise these days to step into O'Neal's path—or to make him angry. But it's happened now, and that's reason enough to keep LSU in mind, if not in the Top 25. And it adds a fascinating dimension to the remainder of the season.