1. The two-headed monster in the backcourt for Auburn are returning starters Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Starting at the point, Harper is just 5’11”, but is one of the most difficult players to defend in the conference. Ashton Hagans will have his hands full and his reputation of an elite perimeter defender on the line, as Harper is averaging 15.1 points per game, which is 8th in the SEC. On top of that, the junior is leading the SEC in assists at 6.7, grabbing 3.1 rebounds, and swiping 1.1 steals per game, while hitting almost 84% of his free throws. Harper’s 45 made threes on the season are good for 4th in the SEC. Starting at the two guard is senior Bryce Brown, who’s putting up 16.2 points per game, good for 6th in SEC, 2.3 assists, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game, hitting 79% of his free throws. Brown has made 56 three point attempts this year which is the second most made threes in the conference. The two starting guards put up 18 points a piece in Auburn’s win over Kentucky last season.
2. If you didn’t notice from the shooting numbers from the first two players mentioned above, shooting the three ball is what Auburn centers their offense around. Modeling a bit after the current NBA game, the Tigers want to take and make as many three point shots as possible, emphasis on taking as many as possible. At 84.5 points per game, Bruce Pearl’s squad is second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring and 18th in the country. On top of that, the Tigers are attempting the 4th most threes per game in the entire country at 31 attempts, hitting 35.9% of them as a team. For comparison, Kentucky is 344th in the country in threes attempted, hitting 34.7% of them as a team. However, Auburn does tend to rely on the three-ball a bit too much at times, getting careless in their shot selection. In fact, Kentucky actually has a better adjusted field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and effective shooting percentage than Auburn does at this point in the season. There are essentially seven players that are threats from downtown for the Tigers, the most dangerous of which are Brown (37.8%) and Harper (40.2%) based on volume of shots and still keeping solid percentages. Outside of those two guards, 6’6″ Malik Dunbar hits 37.5% of his threes, while 6’4″ Samir Doughty hits 44.4% and 6’8″ Chuma Okeke hits 32%. Anfernee McLemore is 6’7″ and has made 10 of his 36 attempts on the year, and lastly, 6’0″ guard J’Von McCormick has hit 4 of the 8 he’s taken this season. Kentucky’s three-point defense has been downright poor almost all season, and it will be especially pertinent today to defend the perimeter well without biting on every pump fake Auburn throws their way.
3. The Tigers typically play a four around one style, in that they’ll put four perimeter players on the floor around one true big man. The time they spend not playing four around one, they’re playing five perimeter threats and no true bigs. I spoke on the plethora of shooters they have in my previous point for the four perimeter players, but it is time to focus on the one in the middle. Junior starting center Austin Wiley stands at 6’11” and 260 pounds, and he is a load to handle in the paint. Wiley was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school, but his development slowed steadily having to sit out all of last year due to eligibility issues surrounding the FBI scandal. The Hoover, Alabama native is averaging 10.8 points, a team-leading 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. His stats would probably be improved, but Wiley tends to get into early foul trouble, picking up three or more fouls in each of the last five games, and 10 times in the 15 games he’s played this year.
4. Head Coach Bruce Pearl is now in his 5th season coaching the Auburn Tigers. Fresh off his first NCAA tournament appearance at Auburn last season and the first one for the Tigers since 2003, Pearl has completely revamped the program in a short time period. As last year’s SEC Champion for the regular season for the first time since 1999, the Tigers are in a good place to contend to do so a second time. Auburn currently sits at a 13-3 record, including 2-1 in their first three conference games. Pearl had his squad take care of business in the non-conference portion of their schedule, only dropping two games, including a close loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational and a seven-point loss at now 17th ranked NC State. They knocked off a few potential tournament teams during non-conference play, including Arizona, Washington, Xavier, and Dayton. They also knocked off Murray State and projected top 5 pick Ja Morant in late December just before SEC play began.
5. Since John Calipari took over for Kentucky in the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats are 9-2 against the Tigers. However, Auburn has won two of last three meetings between the two teams, and in fact, both losses were at Auburn Arena. A surprising stat for today’s game is that it is only the fourth road game against a top 15 SEC opponent since Coach Cal started at Kentucky. The Cats haven’t fared well in the first three of these games, losing by double-digits every time. The first was a 17-point loss at Florida in 2013, the second was a 19-point loss at Florida in 2014, and the third was a 10-point loss at Auburn last season. Let’s hope it is a three-and-out for those games, and Kentucky can right the ship this afternoon. Even if the Cats don’t manage to come out with a victory today, I think that taking it down to the wire would be way better for the psyche of this team than a blowout.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.