After an impressive win in Athens, UK’s road trip will continue with a clash against Bruce Pearl’s Auburn squad on The Plains. Both teams enter this weekend with one SEC road loss and to keep pace with Tennessee (plus LSU and South Carolina at the moment) they will need a victory today.
In Pearl’s fifth season, the Tigers entered this year with very high expectations. They haven’t disappointed to this point. Auburn has been in the top-15 all season and took Duke to the wire in the Maui Invitational. However, they are still looking for a marquee win and could secure one today.
Get ready for a January college basketball game with some stakes on a Saturday afternoon at Auburn Arena.
Nuts and Bolts
Through their history, Auburn has been one of the least successful basketball programs in the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers have only made the NCAA Tournament nine times and their first appearance didn’t come until 1984 when Charles Barkley was on campus. After going to the Big Dance for five straight years under Sonny Smith in the 80s, the Tigers have only made four appearances in the 29 years since.
After parting with Cliff Ellis following 186 wins, five NCAA Tournament victories, and a SEC championship the Tigers hit a rough patch. It was a real ugly decade under Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee. Following that run, Auburn’s decision makers made a swing for the fence and hired Bruce Pearl.
The former Tennessee head coach was doing television work for ESPN following his firing and he jumped at the chance to get back on the sidelines in the SEC. After a long rebuilding job that included two losing seasons, Pearl now has the Tigers competing for league crowns.
Auburn won the SEC regular season title last season and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. This season Pearl has the Tigers back in the hunt. They’re doing it just like you think they would.
The Tigers play at a fast pace and love the three-point shot. As a team, Auburn is shooting 36.7 percent from deep this season and this ranks in the top-70 in the country. On defense, Auburn will use a press and is constantly putting pressure on the ball. Their defense ranks first in the country in turnover percentage. Opponents are coughing up the rock on 27.8 percent of their possessions. This is a very good basketball team.
Today will be the 112th meeting between the two SEC schools with Kentucky owning a 92-19 series lead. The Tigers have won two of the last three after the Wildcats won 18 in a row running from February 2001 until March 2015. Since Auburn Arena opened in 2010, UK owns a 3-2 advantage in games played this beautiful new facility.
Out in the desert, Auburn is a 4.5 point favorite with a total of of 144.5. That’s a projected final score of 74.5-70. On the season, UK is 7-9 against the spread while Auburn is 8-6-1. Kentucky is 1-3 against the number in SEC play.
Ashton Hagans has been on a tear lately and he’s currently making a run at first-team All-SEC honors. To get there, however, he is going to have to beat out Jared Harper.
The sub six-foot point guard leads the team in minutes and is putting up 15.1 points per game to go along with 6.7 assists. He’s shooting over 40 percent from three and is second on the team in free throw attempts. He’s a maestro in ball screen actions and is this team’s most important player. However, he does have a weakness. The junior from Mableton, Georgia is only shooting 34.2 percent on two-point shots.
Next to Harper is a senior who has played a lot of basketball. Bryce Brown has been starting games since his freshman season and the veteran from Georgia is one of the best two-guards in the SEC. Brown is shooting 37.7 percent from three and leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game. He’s a high volume three-point shooter with 72.5 percent of his 191 shot attempts coming from behind the arc.
To no one’s surprise, Bruce Pearl rolls with a version of small ball and an important piece in doing that is the three. After losing Mustapha Heron to an unexpected transfer, the Tigers plugged in their own transfer.
Samir Doughty sat out last season after moving over from VCU and the junior wing from Philadelphia has been outstanding. The 6-foot-4 perimeter player is shooting 44.4 percent from three and his been this offense’s most efficient player. He’s also Auburn’s best perimeter defender and don’t be surprise he guards multiple players for Kentucky today.
Auburn’s top backcourt option off the bench is senior wing Malik Dunbar. The 6-foot-6 combo guard/forward is another solid three-point shooter and a excellent defender. Backing up Jared Harper at the point is junior college transfer J’Von McCormick. The small guard from Texas barely plays 10 minutes per outing, but he is another excellent three-point shooter.
Due to the FBI investigation that shocked that college basketball world last season, Auburn was forced to play 2017-2018 without one of its best players. Boy, are they happy to have Austin Wiley back in the lineup this season.
The former top-40 recruit was a major recruiting win for Bruce Pearl out of Hoover, Alabama and he’s now showing why after playing sparingly as a freshman. The 6-foot-11 and 260-pound man is just playing 17.4 minutes per game, but is putting up over 10 points and 6 rebounds while he is on the floor. He is shooting 58.1 percent from the floor and has attempted 65 free throws despite the limited minutes. He’s had issues with foul trouble, but he’s bear to deal with when he’s in the paint.
Wiley gets all of the attention, but Chuma Okeke is this frontcourt’s most impactful player. The 6-foot-8 sophomore was a top-50 prospect out of high school who has been outstanding in doing the dirty work. The Atlanta native is the team’s top offensive rebounder, is second on the team in blocks and steals, and is shooting a fiery 63.1 percent from two-point range. He is third on the team in minutes and will be a key factor is slowing down UK’s bigs.
Auburn’s season changed for the worse when Anfernee McLemore was knocked out last February. In those eight games without him to end the season, Auburn went 3-5 and limped to the finish with embarrassing blowout losses to Alabama and Clemson in postseason play. To put it lightly, Bruce Pearl is very happy to see the the 6-foot-7 undersized five-man back out on the hardwood.
McLemore has played every game this season with 11 starts and paces the team in blocks after leading the SEC last season. He is the ultimate glue guy who is very important to this team’s chemistry. The fourth big off the bench is 6-foot-8 senior Horace Spencer who is the least efficient of all the rotation players.
The Tigers are deep up front, but outside of Wiley they are undersized. On paper, Kentucky’s size advantage could allow the Wildcats to impose their will in the paint. However, the game is not played on paper.
Keys to Victory
- Start fast, start fast, start fast. Since SEC play started, the starts have been pretty ugly for Kentucky but it has yet to hurt them. The Alabama game was lost in the middle of the second half while UK came back to win comfortably against Georgia, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt. However, not many teams have a knockout punch like Auburn. If UK comes out slow, the Tigers could deliver a haymaker that could end the game before the first media timeout. UK must be ready for the early storm.
- Everyone knows that Auburn is going to attempt over 30 three-point shots in the game. That’s not news. It’s their DNA. But what they also do well is rebound their misses. The Tigers rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (39.5%). They know how to gobble up the long misses. Kentucky has been giving way too many offensive rebounds of late. They must limit possessions as much as possible.
- Three-point defense. Three-point defense. Three-point defense. But you already know this. Cats must be ready to challenge on the perimeter.
- Auburn’s defense forces turnovers on 27.8 percent of possessions. This is the top rate in the country. This will be the biggest challenge Ashton Hagans has faced this season. He must handle Auburn’s pressure, play great perimeter defense, and control the tempo to get Kentucky playing at a comfortable pace. Do all that and UK has something really special at point.
- Jared Harper is one of the best point guards in the country, but he has one glaring weakness. The junior is shooting just 34.2 percent from two-point range. He is excellent in ball screens, but UK must play him smart. Don’t leave shooters. Make Harper make shots in the paint over length.