Auburn's 72-62 loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon should leave fans with mixed emotions. On one hand, the Tigers played with effort and energy that has been missing at times this season. On the other, Auburn was its own worst enemy too often against the Wildcats.
Tony Barbee's team went into the contest with a good gameplan. Kentucky has earned a reputation as a bit of a soft team this season, and Auburn tried to exploit that with physical, chippy play. With any luck, that play would frustrate the 'Cats and lead to overreactions and mistakes. Unfortunately, it was the Tigers that stepped over the line on a few occasions. Jordon Granger was ejected late in the first half for throwing a punch, and Rob Chubb picked up at least one foul for getting an elbow into Kentucky center Nerlens Noel.
Of course, the most disappointing reactions came from Frankie Sullivan, not because he was throwing egregious cheap shots, but because as the team leader, he should know better than to commit an intentional foul when trying to stop a layup or clear out a passing opponent with his shoulder. For the fourth straight game, Sullivan played poorly, forcing play in transition, taking bad shots and generally carrying himself more like a freshman than a senior, and he compiled just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting. In the second half of Saturday's game, Barbee decided to send his best player a message and sit Sullivan for the final 10:19. Hopefully, No. 23 will get his head on straight and finish this season -- his finale on the Plains -- with a flourish.
Now, just because Auburn earned some calls for some rough play, that doesn't mean the Tigers weren't getting hosed by the officials. Too many ticky-tack calls went against the team in orange, and not enough went against the 'Cats. In the end, Auburn was 11-of-17 from the free throw line, while Kentucky was 26-of-38. In a 10-point game, the free throw disparity was the difference. And before any Kentucky fans accuse this Barner of just being butthurt, consider this:
In five SEC games at Rupp Arena this season, Kentucky has shot more free throws than its opponent -- you guessed it -- five times. On average, the Wildcats take 11.4 more foul shots than the visiting team. Whether Big Blue Nation wants to admit it or not, it's almost always five-on-eight in Lexington.
So if Auburn knows it has to beat the 'Cats and the officials, the Tigers should know they can't miss opportunities or give Kentucky second chances. Once again, rebounding was a problem. Kentucky finished with a 32-23 advantage and corralled nine rebounds that led to 10 second-chance points. Combine that number with the fact that Auburn missed several attempts in the paint, and it's no surprise that the Tigers weren't able to overcome the difference in free throws.
Saturday's loss was frustrating, but it wasn't without bright spots. Noel Johnson woke from the dead to hit four three-pointers and score 12 points. Chris Denson returned to his early-season form, scoring 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He was a constant threat cutting to the basket, and in the face of Noel, Kentucky's formidable shot-blocker, he neutralized the 6'10 freshman, often dropping pull-up floaters over Noel's outstretched hands. Overall, it was nice to see Auburn bow up against Kentucky, even if the Tigers crossed the line a few times. Against the Wildcats in January, Auburn played scared, and it resulted in a 22-point loss. This time around, Barbee's team didn't back down, and while it didn't win, it proved that it wasn't afraid to compete.
Auburn returns home Wednesday to face Arkansas, a team that defeated the Tigers at Fayetteville, 88-80, in double-overtime on Jan. 16. The Tigers have lost seven of eight games, but in the last two, they've finally appeared to regain a pulse. Playing in front of a home crowd with a little bit of confidence could do wonders against the Razorbacks.