1. Sharife Cooper
Despite only playing in ten games so far this season, it is clear that the most talented player on the floor this afternoon will be Auburn’s Sharife Cooper. Formerly a Kentucky target, Cooper was a 5-star and top-25 prospect out of Marietta, Georgia in the Class of 2020. Just three days before this season started, Auburn announced that Cooper’s eligibility as being reviewed by the NCAA and that he was not going to be playing until it was resolved. Some questioned if Cooper would even stay at Auburn, or jump ship to head overseas for a season before entering the NBA Draft. In late December, Cooper re-joined the team for practices and started playing games on January 9th. Through ten games this season, Cooper leads Auburn in scoring at 20.2 points and leads the SEC in assists at 8.7 per game.
While Auburn is only 5-5 in the games that Cooper has played in, his level of play has been at an extremely high-level. In fact, the only game so far this season that Cooper hasn’t impressed was the first match up against Kentucky on January 16th. His lowest scoring and lowest shooting percentage in a game this season, Kentucky’s length really bothered Cooper on his drives to the basket. In a winning effort, he finished with 11 points on 3 of 13 shooting and 0 of 5 from three, with 4 turnovers and 5 of 10 shooting at the free throw line.
2. Three-point shooting
The offense that was shown from Auburn in the first game against Kentucky this season was not the typical offense we’ve seen out of Auburn all season. Auburn had one of their worst shooting games of the season, hitting just 5 of 24 threes and only 38% of all their field goal attempts. Fortunately for the Tigers, Kentucky’s offense was even more anemic, with only one starter scoring more than 6 total points. Bruce Pearl’s squad has taken 579 threes this season, for an average of 27.6 per game, which ranks second in the SEC and 16th in the country. Their three-point percentage as a team sits at 33.5%, eighth in the SEC, but when you take as many as Auburn does, it can be extremely effective. Auburn scores over 27 points per game on threes, with 9.2 makes per game.
As far as which individuals are a threat from three for the Auburn Tigers, it is mostly highlighted by four players, with others being capable, but not typically going to have a large amount of attempts. The four main shooters are led by Allen Flanigan, who is shooting 35.4% from three on just under five attempts per game. Next is Justin Powell, a Prospect, Kentucky native who will most likely miss today’s game with a concussion, who shoots 44.2% from three on four attempts per game. Third would be Jaylin Williams, who takes 3.5 per game, making 37.8%, followed by Jamal Johnson’s 35% on 5.6 attempts per game. Auburn also has three other players shooting sub-30% on the year but are definitely willing to attempt if given the open shot.
3. Rebuilding year
We all know Kentucky’s mantra in the Coach Cal era centered around the reloading, not rebuilding philosophy. This season, the reloading hasn’t exactly panned out the way most had hoped. For most other schools, Auburn included, a mass exodus is followed with some rebuilding. Bruce Pearl had been building up a roster for a few years that was set to peak in last season’s NCAA Tournament. After going to the Final Four in 2019, the Tigers were taking a 25-6 record into the 2020 postseason before Covid hit. Unfortunately for Auburn, the end of last season meant the end of the Auburn career for a lot of players.
When comparing last season’s roster to this season’s, you’ll see that Auburn lost their top six scorers, top six rebounders, and top four passers. We know that Kentucky only returned Keion Brooks from last year’s contributors, but Auburn was in a similar situation, not returning a single player who averaged more than 13 minutes per game last season. Their leading returning scorer averaged just 4.2 points per game last season. It also means that the overall roster for Auburn is very young and set up for the future if these guys stick around. The Tigers’ roster has zero seniors and just three juniors, but nine sophomores and six freshmen. So far this season, those struggles have shown on the floor, as their 11-10 overall and 5-7 conference record sits them 10th in the SEC.
4. Since we last met
Kentucky and Auburn last met four weeks ago today in a low scoring affair that ended in a 66-59 Tiger victory. Since then, Kentucky has gone just 1-5, with some absolutely brutal finishes in the last few weeks, to bring their overall record to 5-13 on the season. Bruce Pearl’s squad hasn’t exactly seen much more success than John Calipari’s in that time period. In the nearly month long period since the first match up, Auburn has gone 3-4, including home losses to both Georgia and Ole Miss in the process.
We saw Kentucky lose on a buzzer beater to Georgia, then knock off LSU in convincing fashion, before dropping four straight to No. 9 Alabama, No. 18 Missouri, No. 11 Tennessee, and on Tuesday against Arkansas. Auburn followed up their win against Kentucky with a close loss to Arkansas and then back to back wins over South Carolina and No. 12 Missouri. A three-game losing streak followed for the Tigers, with losses at No. 2 Baylor, at home against Georgia, and at home against Ole Miss. They did manage to end that losing streak earlier this week with six-point over Vanderbilt in Nashville. With a tough stretch still to play on Auburn’s schedule, a win this afternoon against Kentucky is a must.
5. Recent struggles against Auburn
While most of the teams that Kentucky has matched up against in conference play were teams that the Wildcats had recently had success with, an exception being Tennessee, Auburn has been mostly the opposite. Against Auburn, Kentucky has struggled as of late. In the last nine games against Auburn and Bruce Pearl, Kentucky sits at just 4-5. Kentucky is 1-4 in their last four games at Auburn Arena, with the fifth loss being the Elite Eight overtime loss in 2019. This afternoon, the Tigers visit Rupp Arena, where they’ve historically struggled. Auburn is 2-49 in games played at Kentucky, with the two wins coming in 1983 and 1988. The Tigers have lost in their last 18 trips to Rupp Arena.
Before Bruce Pearl turned Auburn around in recent years, Kentucky had won 18 straight games against the Tigers from 2001 through 2015. The overall series still heavily favors Kentucky, as the Cats have a 95-22 lead on the Tigers, but the recent stretch has certainly been even. Despite Kentucky’s struggles on Tuesday with a team of similar style to Auburn, the Tigers actually sit as a two-point underdog as of early this morning. In a season that has been filled with bad historical stats for Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation is hoping to not add another footnote of “first loss since…” to Auburn this afternoon.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.