The Kentucky Wildcats are set for their first true road game of the season against a top-15 opponent in the Auburn Tigers.
And it’s really no secret what the keys of the game are for Kentucky to pull off the victory.
Averaging 84.5 points (No. 2 in the SEC) and 10.9 three-point field goals (No. 1 in the SEC) per game, Auburn is one of the most explosive offensive teams not only in the conference, but in all of college basketball. In order to come out of Auburn Arena with a victory tomorrow afternoon, Kentucky must find a way to get over their slow starts and issues defending the three-point line.
During the team’s pregame media opportunity this afternoon, Kentucky guards Tyler Herro and Jemarl Baker said those two fairly obvious keys of the game have been stressed relentlessly over the course of the week during practice and film sessions.
Herro actually says despite the obvious difficulties of playing on the road against an elite opponent, he’s excited for the challenge.
“They get up and down, shoot a lot of threes like a few teams we’ve already seen this season,” he said. “It’ll be a fun game, good atmosphere. (We’ve just got to keep) playing defense, they’re going to make a few shots, but we’ve just got to stay with each other and keep competing.”
During practice, Herro said Kentucky head coach John Calipari is giving them specific tips and techniques to help slow down the rapid-fire mindset the Tigers possess.
“Coach has been emphasizing, obviously, limiting threes,” he said. “He gave us a few ways, you know, putting our hand up early, so when the shooter sees our hand it makes them think a little bit before he shoots it.
Against Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Georgia, Kentucky got off to a cold start and it took some clawing and fighting in each of those performances to make strong comebacks. In one of them (Alabama), the slow start from the jump was too much to overcome and the Wildcats went home with a loss.
When you factor in the overall talent of the opposition and the fact that they’ll be playing in a hostile environment, Kentucky can’t afford the same slow start we’ve seen over the last four matchups. And Herro knows that.
“Coach emphasized that it’s a big game, that we’ve got to come out strong the first few possessions,” he said. “Because of the atmosphere, it’s going to be really loud, so we’ve got to communicate early, go with the gameplan, and stick with it.”
Kentucky shooting guard Jemarl Baker agrees with Herro, saying Calipari is making it known that something needs to change with his team’s starts, and it needs to happen against Auburn.
“(Calipari) definitely stressed we need to start well, and it’s just something we have to work at,” he said. “We’ve started well in some games and then had other bad games where we didn’t start well. We need to push to start well when the tip comes, we have to be ready.”
So why has it been such a struggle at the start of games lately?
“I don’t know why, but we need to be engaged right from the tip,” Herro said. “If we have one or two guys that aren’t engaged right from the start, we have breakdowns on defense and that’s where they get threes and dunks.”
Baker said his team needs to play like they have nothing to lose, with their second half performance against Georgia being a great example of how good they can be with intensity.
“We just have to pride in everything we do, go out there and play hard, leave everything out on the court,” said Baker.
One of those individuals that never fails to leave it all out on the court is Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans. Against Auburn, Hagans will be tasked with defending Tiger sharpshooter Jared Harper, who is currently averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 assists per game, all while shooting 40 percent from the three-point line.
Baker said the Kentucky star point guard won’t back down against the elite competition.
“His intensity is always high, it doesn’t change from practice to practice or game to game,” Baker said. “As you can see, he gets steals every game, plays well.
Herro agrees, saying he understands Harper is a guy capable of knocking down shots anywhere on the floor, but he’s confident in Hagans’ ability to take the game over on the defensive end of the floor.
“Giving him the assignment, you know he can shoot, but Ashton is a great defender that can get up into him and won’t allow him to get in transition and knock down threes,” he said.
No disrespect to Harper or any of the other stellar players on the Auburn roster, but Herro says he will take his guys every time.
“He’s a good point guard, but we’ve got two great point guards ourselves, so we’ll see what happens Saturday,” he said.