It took Bruce Pearl some time to get things humming for Auburn basketball, but it’s no doubt that things are now rolling downhill. After winning the SEC regular season title in 2018, the Tigers followed it up with 30 wins, an SEC Tournament title and their first even Final Four appearance last year. This season, despite a soft non-conference schedule, the Tigers entered yesterday’s match with an 18-2 record and are well on their way to another very successful season.
Kentucky was going to need to play one of their best games of the season to walk out of Auburn Arena with a victory and despite getting big scoring efforts from Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, the Wildcats were unable to get it done. After getting the worst game of the season from Ashton Hagans and not getting an impact performance from Nick Richards, the Wildcats were stymied down the stretch and could not keep Auburn off of the free throw line.
Kentucky scored 66 points in 64 possessions on their way to averaging 1.03 points per trip. The Wildcats were 14 of 33 (42.4 percent) from two and went just 6 of 16 from three after starting 4 of 7. UK was able to get to the line and made Auburn pay with 20 makes on 24 attempts. Outside of Ashton Hagans, Kentucky was able to protect the ball and at times ran some really good offense.
For most of the night, it was a two-man attack but the two were pretty efficient. Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley combined for 45 points with four three-point makes and 11 of 25 shooting from the field. The duo combined to go 19 of 22 at the free throw line and were tough for Auburn to matchup. Maxey, when involved with high ball screens, put a ton of pressure on the defense and it was a look UK probably didn’t go to enough.
It was, however, a major struggle for the other six players who saw playing time. UK got just 21 points from this group on 8 of 22 shooting. Ashton Hagans, for the second time in a row against Auburn, played one of his worst games of the season and was befuddled by the pressure man-to-man used by Bruce Pearl. Hagans was in foul trouble all game, but also had turnover issues early and never looked comfortable on the floor. It’s going to be hard for UK to beat anyone when he only plays 20 minutes and really gives you nothing on offense.
Auburn has built a defensive reputation of taking away whatever it is the opposing offense does best and against Kentucky they were able to severely limit Nick Richards. Outside of a couple of dunks, the junior center was unable to get any easy looks and had to play through contact on every post touch. Auburn’s bigs did a good job of pushing him away on touches and pretty much made him a non-factor on offense by limiting him to seven points on eight shots.
At the four spot, it continues to be the missing spot. Between Keion Brooks Jr., EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina, Kentucky got just six points on six shots. Sestina missed all of his threes while Montgomery mysteriously could not get any time down the stretch. Cal may have gone with the wrong guy in the biggest possessions and Sestina’s three-point miss with just under five minutes with Kentucky trailing by just one felt like the biggest misfire of the game.
Where Kentucky probably let the game slip away a little bit was in the first half. After a Keion Brooks Jr. jumper with five minutes remaining, UK held a 26-19 lead.. However, despite both Samir Doughty and Austin Wiley saddled with foul trouble, UK could not close the half. The Tigers went on a 15-9 in those final minutes and turn what was about to be a double-digit deficit into a one-possession game. That gave the home team a ton of momentum and eliminated what could’ve been a nice second half cushion for the road team.
Kentucky allowed 75 points on 64 possessions for a very ugly 1.17 points per trip. The Tigers did that despite shooting just 6 of 23 from three and going well under 50 percent from two-point range. They scored on free throws and second chance points.
We all saw why Auburn third nationally in free throw rate with the Tigers shooting 44 free throws and drawing 29 fouls. Kentucky finished the game with two players fouling out and another three with four personals. Once at the line, Auburn was very efficient knocking in 33 to shoot 75 percent as a team. This is how you remain efficient on offense in a bad shooting night.
On the glass, Auburn is really hard to deal with as they rank top-25 in offensive rebound percentage. They proved that wasn’t a fluke against Kentucky by gobbling up 17 of their 33 misses and cashing them in for 17 second chance points. Kentucky’s first shot defense was really good, but they could not keep the Tigers off the foul line or the glass and those two facets resulted in 50 of their 75 points.
Samir Doughty put together an offensive stat line that was a microcosm of the game. Auburn’s leading scorer collected 23 points on just 10 shots, but was able to live at the free throw line. When he drove he was seeking contact and he was able to get a whistle more times than not. When at the stripe, the 76.6 percent free throw shooter made UK pay with 14 makes in 15 attempts. When you let a team’s top scorer get points that efficiently it is going to be hard for your defense to have a good day.
As expected, Austin Wiley was a monster on the glass collecting seven offensive rebounds on his way to 12 points and 10 rebounds. UK simply does not have a matchup for him. On the wing, the length of both Isaac Okoro and Danjel Purifoy can be tough to deal with but three three-point makes by the pair in crunch time allowed the Tigers to pull away.
From an individual standpoint, Nick Richards collecting just three defensive rebounds is simply not going to get the job done. In 38 minutes, Kentucky needs their best interior player to give much more. At the four spot, UK just got six defensive rebounds and you simply have zero chance when that is what your front court is giving you.
Ashton Hagans didn’t come up with a steal for the first time this season and forcing takeaways for this defense remains a major issue. Kentucky currently ranks last in the SEC in turnover rate and have been consistently unable to produce extra possessions for their offense.
When you looked at the matchup between both Auburn and Kentucky it was a very unique one. Despite shooting a ton of threes, what the Tigers do best is something where UK really struggled. Meanwhile, the playmaking ability of UK’s three guards on the perimeter could give issues to an Auburn defense that relies on length and pressure. In the end, it was the Tigers that took better advantages of the mismatches.
Auburn was able to really hurt Kentucky on the offensive glass while they were able to get to the free throw line to avoid long scoring droughts that come when you shoot 35.3 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Ashton Hagans being out of the game really effected the versatility of UK’s offense and allowed Auburn some easier possessions on defense. With that said, they could not handle Tyrese Maxey in ball screen actions and that is something UK probably needed to use more.
We can talk about the fouls and the inability to keep Auburn off the offensive glass, but at the end of the day UK had the opportunity to go win the game in crunch time. With just over seven minutes remaining, Kentucky owned a 54-51 lead in what was a toss up game. From that point forward, Auburn outscored UK by a count of 24-12 with the Wildcats making just four baskets in the final seven minutes. Meanwhile, the Tigers made three of their six threes in addition to hitting 12 of 15 shots from the line.
In the end, Auburn just outplayed UK with the game in the balance and they deserved to win. That is important to recognize, but we must also point out the glaring issues. The Wildcats now 61st in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom and that would be their worst finish of the Calipari era. They are not forcing any turnovers and are in deep trouble when they face a team that can attack the offensive glass.
It is very easy to say that UK was dealt a tough hand on the road with the whistle. The Wildcats were called for 29 fouls and nearly every player in their rotation had to deal with foul trouble. This resulted into a bunch of free throw opportunities for Auburn and the Tigers were able to capitalize, but sometimes that happens on the road in college basketball.
The biggest takeaway from this game may just be that a team with the profile of Auburn is going to be an extremely tough matchup for Kentucky to go up against this season. The Tigers are excellent on the offensive boards and Kentucky is just not built to slow down a team with that size when they are determined to go after misses. Anytime UK faces an opponent like that, fouls are likely to become an issue and that is a scary proposition when you consider that both LSU and Mississippi State are very similar in that regard.
With all that said, Kentucky was still in position to win the game and now all five of their losses have been by a combined 24 points. They haven’t been able to blow teams out, but they are also playing with teams until the very end. This is a flawed group that is continuing to grow. Now they must figure out what to counter with when they are at an obvious disadvantage on the boards. Extending the defense with their three guards and attempting to force some turnovers may just be a solution.
On to Mississippi State.