Happy Valentine’s Day, Big Blue Nation! If you’re anything like me, you’re spending tonight with your most significant other, the Kentucky basketball team. Except lately, the Wildcats have been like that unhealthy relationship that you keep running back to when they say they’re going to change. The most recent version of the Cats changing occurred after a “team meeting” which involved players taking the blame for some struggles throughout the season. Hamidou Diallo and Quade Green were honest with the media yesterday, as both essentially put themselves on blast for the team’s struggles. Now let’s see if anything comes of this latest change.
The Cats are in War Eagle territory tonight to take on the current best team in the Southeastern Conference, the Auburn Tigers. Head Coach Bruce Pearl has done a masterful job coaching this team without two of their better players who have been out for the season in relation to the FBI/Adidas scandal. Auburn is currently ranked as the #10 team in the country, sitting at a 22-3 record.
The Tigers’ best player, Bryce Brown, missed the last game with a shoulder injury. He’s returned to practice the last few days, and most would say there’s no way that Bruce Pearl wouldn’t play him in tonight’s game. Let’s take a look at the probable starting lineup for the Tigers, assuming that Brown suits up.
#2 Bryce Brown, Junior Guard, 6’3″
Bryce Brown is one of the most improved players in the nation this season. He was the 369th ranked recruit coming out of high school and averaged just over 7 points last season, but now he’s one of the candidates for SEC Player of the Year. As I mentioned earlier, Brown is nursing a shoulder injury that could slow him down a little tonight, but that is to be determined.
The junior is the 6th best scorer in the SEC and the team leader at 16.6 points per game. He pulls down 2.3 rebounds and dishes out 1.9 assists per game. He can fill it up from anywhere on the floor, hitting 41.5% of his threes and 78.7% of his free throws. Last season against the Cats, he scored just 6 points in 27 minutes.
A true scoring guard, Brown is one of four starting guards for the Tigers this season. He most likely matches up with Hamidou Diallo for Kentucky. Diallo was very critical of his own defensive effort in the media session yesterday, so hopefully he comes out tonight ready to fight. Shutting down Brown would go a long way towards pulling off an upset.
#5 Mustapha Heron, Sophomore Guard, 6’5″
Mustapha Heron was far and away the best player for the Auburn Tigers last season, and he has continued as one of their main contributors this year. Heron was the first 5-star recruit to sign with the Tigers in Auburn basketball history. He had 11 points and 3 rebounds against the Cats last season.
While Bryce Brown is the 6th best scorer in the conference, Heron is just one spot behind him as the 7th leading scorer in the conference. He’s currently averaging 16.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and a team leading 1.3 steals per game. Heron is a threat to score from anywhere on the floor, but his three point shooting has dropped some this year. He’s shooting 33.7% from three and 80.7% from the free throw line.
At only 6’5″, Heron is the second tallest player in the starting lineup for the Tigers. A four guard lineup brings about match up problems galore for both teams defensively. Kentucky will most likely use Kevin Knox on Heron, but doing so results in PJ Washington defending a 6’3″ guard. Zone may be hard to play with outside shooting being a strength of this Auburn team.
#1 Jared Harper, Sophomore Guard, 5’10”
Jared Harper returns as a second year starter for Coach Bruce Pearl this season. Harper was a four-star rated prospect and a top 50 player coming out of Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, Georgia. He finished with 8 points and 3 turnovers in the loss to Kentucky last season.
Harper is a third straight outside threat for the Tigers. He’s a facilitator as well as a scorer for this offense, leading the team with 6 assists per game, good for best in the SEC. He’s also scoring 13.3 points, pulling down 2.2 rebounds, and swiping 1.2 steals per game. He’s shooting 41.3% from deep and 81% from the charity stripe.
The sophomore is truly the quarterback of this Auburn offensive attack. At 5’10” and 170 pounds, Harper is outsized by nearly every player he goes up against, but he has continued to impress. He’ll face a challenge in Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tonight. Harper probably matches up better with Quade Green, but it’ll depend on the various lineups Coach Cal throws onto the floor.
#13 Desean Murray, Junior Guard, 6’3″
Desean Murray is the fourth and final guard in the starting lineup for Bruce Pearl. He is playing in his first season at Auburn, sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. He spent his freshman season at Presbyterian College, where he was a Big South All-Conference first-team selection while scoring 20.2 points per game.
Murray has stepped into a role of almost playing a power forward for Auburn. He’s averaging 11 points and a team leading 6.9 rebounds on the year, while shooting 37.8% from three and 85.7% on his free throws. Murray go get buckets for Coach Pearl, so if Bryce Brown does not play, look for Murray to be picking up the slack.
The junior measures in at 6’3″ and 225 pounds, and he plays so much bigger than those measurements would allude. The closest to a forward of the four starting guards, Murray plays most of his game inside the arc, despite having the ability to stretch the floor. PJ Washington will be in for one of his more difficult defensive assignments, having to keep up with Murray all night.
#24 Anfernee McLemore, Sophomore Forward, 6’7″
Anfernee McLemore is the lone non-guard in the starting lineup for Auburn this season. He was ranked as a three-star prospect in most recruiting services, but earned that fourth star in ESPN’s rankings. He played just 6 minutes in the game against Kentucky last season, totaling 2 points and 3 rebounds.
McLemore is the closest thing to a post-presence that Bruce Pearl runs out there, but it has been working for Auburn this season. He’s scoring 7.5 points, grabbing 5 rebounds, and blocking an SEC leading 2.8 shots per game. He can step away from the basket and knock down shots, hitting 16 of 42 threes attempted this year.
Despite being just 6’7″ and 220 pounds, McLemore is an intimidating force in the paint for the Tigers. He’ll match up with Kentucky’s Nick Richards to start the game, but if Kentucky has to go small to keep up with Auburn’s four-guard lineup, he’ll draw the eye of Jarred Vanderbilt for parts of the game.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.