While it’s probably a bit too early to say that the Kentucky Wildcats have “turned a corner,” there have been a lot of positive signs during their current three-game win streak. The Wildcats have ramped it up on defense allowing just 48 points per game over the last two, and Ashton Hagans is quickly emerging into the “next great John Calipari point guard.” It’s only mid-January and Kentucky is far from a complete team. But again, there are plenty of signs this group is headed in the right direction.
Still, we’ll find out just how far Kentucky has to go over the next eight days, with a brutal three-game stretch which includes three ranked teams. Kentucky will travel to Auburn this weekend, before facing Mississippi State and Kansas at home next week. There is no “magic number” on what their record needs to be over that stretch. But if they’re to be taken seriously as a team that can make a run to the Final Four, they probably need to win two out of three to feel good. If they win all three, it’s inarguable that Kentucky has arrived as a legit contender.
Ultimately though you can’t win all three unless you win the first one, which makes this weekend’s game at Auburn so crucial. To beat a Top 15 team on the road gives the Wildcats a resume boosting win they can carry all season. Add it in with wins that Kentucky already has at Louisville and against North Carolina on a neutral court and all of a sudden you’re talking about a nice little resume for the Wildcats.
So with that said, what will it take to beat the Tigers? Well, I’m glad you asked, as I decided to reach out to a coach who has faced Auburn this season to get a scouting report on them. Remember, I did this before the North Carolina game and, I hate to brag, but it seems pretty obvious that the Wildcats staff read my article. You know, since they dominated the Tar Heels from start to finish after all.
Can I go 2-for-2 and take Kentucky’s season to another level (Yes, I’m kidding)? We’ll find out, as here is what one anonymous coach who has faced Auburn this season said about the Tigers.
Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson will play a massive role on Saturday – but it will come on the defensive end
Hagans had a breakout game offensively in his return to Georgia Tuesday (where I’m not sure if you heard, but the home fans booed him) and Johnson is the team’s best long-term NBA prospect.
But while each has the ability to light up the opponent defensively, the key for Kentucky might be what Hagans and Johnson do on the other end of the court. Slowing down Auburn’s guards is key to success against the Tigers.
“What they really do, especially at home is they make so many transition three’s,” the coach said.
“They start hitting those transition threes and it ramps up their defensive energy and they just go on these runs, man. You’ll be in the game with them and then you’ll be down 20 because they went on a 12-0 run and made four threes. It’s amazing.”
While it’s impossible to know just how many of Auburn’s threes have come in transition, what is indisputable is that the Tigers are one of the best shooting teams in college basketball. Auburn is making just under 11 three-pointers per game, which is sixth most in the country and are doing it while shooting 36 percent as a team. Although that percentage isn’t through the roof, it’s pretty darn good when you realize just how many three’s they’ve actually attempted. Overall, five different players have hit at least 17 three’s this season for Auburn (in comparison, Kentucky has just two guys who have hit that mark, Johnson and Tyler Herro) with Bryce Brown and Jared Harper combining for 92.
For what Auburn does, the coach believes Harper is the best point guard in the country (“If I’m taking any point guard in the country, I’m taking him,” the coach said) and therefore it’s key that Hagans picks him up just as soon as he touches the ball.
Equally important is who picks up Brown, and where. That responsibility will likely fall on Johnson at least to start the game.
“To me, you’ve almost got to designate someone to find Bryce Brown in transition,” he said. “You’ve got to find Brown because if you watch the film, he’s so good at running and catching hit aheads in space. And his range is unlimited.”
Jared Harper from the LOGO pic.twitter.com/naB6MiNWqP
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 22, 2018
But it’s not just the guards who hit threes
While Brown and Harper key the offensive attack, what makes Auburn so deadly is that – depending on the lineup – just about anyone on the court can beat you with the deep ball.
The Tigers are the rare team that has big guys that can run the floor and hit three’s, meaning that picking up the big guys in transition isn’t just about the guards – but the post players as well.
“[Anfernee] McLemore can step out and hit threes,” the coach said. “Obviously [Chuma] Okeke can step out and hit threes. Horace Spencer isn’t a great shooter but he can step out and make some.”
The numbers back up the coach.
On the season, Okeke, a 6’8 forward has tallied 17 made three-pointers and McLemore – who is battling back from a season-ending injury from last year – has made seven. He made 18 last season while shooting 39 percent from behind the arc.
So Okeke and McLemore are the big guys who can really hurt Kentucky. Which is also why they better pray…
Auburn decides to play Austin Wiley heavy minutes
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Wiley, he was one of the players caught up in the FBI investigation last year and was suspended the entire season. He elected to return to school this year, where he is averaging 11 points and just under six rebounds. He is also Auburn’s best long-term NBA prospect.
So having him back has to be a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily.
You see, Wiley is much more of a traditional low post big man, who likes to run down the court, get set in the low block and do his damage from there. He also doesn’t shoot the ball well and has attempted just three three-pointers all season.
In essence, Wiley might have the brightest long-term future of anyone on Auburn’s roster. But his individual skill-set just doesn’t mesh with the rest of Auburn’s roster. When he’s on the court, the Tigers play slower, and have one less shooter to beat you from deep.
“Wiley is a pro and his presence is unbelievable,” the coach said.
“But they become so fast when he isn’t on the court. They become so fast with McLemore running the floor. [When McLemore is out there] they have five guys that can all step out and make threes. There’s just so much more space.”
Therefore, just doing some deductive reasoning it seems to be that Auburn’s most dangerous lineup is when Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are in the back-court, Samir Doughty is on the wing and Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore are playing at the big positions.
But when Wiley – ironically, Auburn’s best player is on the floor – that’s a good thing for Kentucky.
And the best news is…
Auburn might have no choice but to play Wiley
While it’s a gift to have hyper-skilled big men who can run the floor and shoot threes like Auburn, it can also be disadvantageous as well. When McLemore and Okeke are on the floor they create problems, but also struggle against a bigger, more physical front-line who can beat them on the boards.
Does that sound like anyone in particular? You know, like Reid Travis and Nick Richards and P.J. Washington? If those guys can establish themselves early and control the glass, it might mean that Auburn has no choice but to put Wiley out there to mitigate some of their size. It will also weaken the Tigers from playing their best lineup together.
“If Kentucky can limit some of those transition opportunities and then use some of their length in the half-court, I think they’ll be fine,” the coach said.
Again though, the key will be to limit those transition opportunities early. If the Tigers can get a few three-pointers to drop, they won’t be as inclined to “go big” with Wiley, which might mean a long day of Reid Travis and Nick Richards chasing around three-point shooters 25-feet from the basket.
Therefore, it all comes back to limiting those three-point attempts and makes. That’s especially key because…
Kentucky can’t let the home crowd get behind the Tigers
It’s no secret that every game Kentucky plays on the road is the other team’s Super Bowl, the game where free t-shirts are given out and students camp out for weeks at a time to get a front row seat. Still, even though Kentucky is the biggest game in every SEC road venue, Auburn Arena is a totally different beast altogether.
“I’ve coached at almost every high-major venue,” the coach said. “When it’s rocking, it’s as good as any of them, man.”
That’s high praise, and it’s also why it’s imperative the Wildcats don’t fall behind early like they have a few times in the last couple games. If things start off like they did against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt (where the Wildcats faced a double-digit deficit before they could even blink), it could be a long, painful night for Kentucky.
But, if they can do like they did against Georgia and limit the opponent’s scoring early and take the home crowd out of it, they could get a massive road win.
A road win that could completely change the trajectory of their season.
At this point, Kentucky has the scouting report on Auburn. And now the ball is in their court.