If someone would’ve told you before the season that in mid-February one of these teams would have a Four Game lead on the other and top the SEC by two Games, everyone would assume Kentucky. Instead, it’s Auburn, which only has three total losses and holds a top-10 spot in the AP Polls. Not many saw this coming and still not many believe in the Tigers despite what they’ve done.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Auburn is that it’s dominated on the road, winning by double digits against teams like Tennessee, Missouri and most recently Georgia. It’s hard to argue that Auburn isn’t the best team in the Conference considering what it has done this season. But it’s still not over and Kentucky is in need of a win.
The Wildcats have lost three straight and looked less than competitive in their last two road losses. At Texas A&M on Saturday, they led at halftime yet with 10 minutes to go were down by 21 points. There’s a clear problem with this Kentucky team and it’s hard to see them figuring things out on the road against the first-place team.
Nothing points to Kentucky winning this Game other than its name. Auburn leads the SEC in offensive efficiency and is third in defensive efficiency. The Tigers are best at forcing turnovers and that’s something the Wildcats have struggled with all season. The ‘Cats are also poor offensively, shooting just 28.7% from deep and while their three-point defense is best in the league, that still hasn’t mattered because they give up one of the highest rates from two-point range (53.7%).
When looking at the lineups, there’s an obvious method to how Kentucky is going to compete. Auburn runs a brand of small ball with its tallest players coming in at 6-foot-8. The question heading into this Game is the status of guard Bryce Brown, Auburn’s leading scorer who is dealing with a shoulder strain. But while he leads in scoring, the Tigers had zero problems winning at Georgia on Saturday so his absence may not matter in the end.
That said, Brown is one of the better shooters on the team and has taken the most threes by far for Auburn this season. There are still plenty more shooters to go around from Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke, but Brown has made 31 more threes than anyone else on the team. Either way, Mustapha Heron has been the big scorer as of late averaging more than 20 points over the last five Games. His shot has started to fall, which has helped Auburn’s scoring even more.
The matchups will be fun to watch in this one because Kentucky will have a size advantage at almost every position. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the key for Kentucky because he can use his 6-6 frame at point guard to take advantage of whichever guard Auburn uses on him. The Wildcats also have numerous players that are bigger than anyone Auburn uses. Kevin Knox will aim to do more down low, especially if a smaller guy like Heron or Malik DuNBAr is guarding him. And if Knox can get going, the Wildcats will be in business.
If Auburn isn’t making threes, it still will get easy looks inside the arc and that’s where Kentucky’s problem is. The Wildcats may have more overall talent, but the Tigers are clearly working better as a team. It’s not a great situation to take Kentucky in, but with its back against the wall with Four straight losses on the line, expect a huge fight.
Our Pick – Kentucky +9.5