Wednesday was, as it has often been the case this season, a tale of two Tigers. The first half was what some seem to expect from Auburn. They struggled to make shots and were outscored in the paint. However, the second half showed a team that some of us had expected to see this whole season.
Let's not kid ourselves - it was an ugly game on both sides, as evidenced by the final score of 49-37. More importantly though, it gave Auburn a win and hopefully, the momentum for a better a game against Kentucky on Saturday.
In the last outing against Kentucky (Jan 19), I expected the team to be on fire because it was Kentucky and because it was a home game. Auburn rarely has the talent level that Kentucky has but at least Barbee worked under Calipari long enough to give Auburn a solid game plan. The first half wasn't horrible - Kentucky only led by five points (25-30) - but the second half was gut-wrenching. Kentucky left with an easy victory, 53-75. The Wildcats were also without starting forward Willie Cauley-Stein. If you can stomach it, the summary post on the Kentucky game can be found here. INSERT LINK HERE
The Wildcats are expected to start the following:
Nerlens Noel - F - Freshman - 6'10, 228
Alex Poythress - F - Freshman - 6'7, 239
Archie Goodwin - G - Freshman - 6'4, 198
Ryan Harrow - G - Sophomore - 6'2, 170
Julius Mays - G - Senior - 6'2, 192
And from the bench, expect to see Kyle WIltjer - F - Sophomore - 6'10, 239, and Wille Cauley-Stein - F - Freshman - 7'0, 244.
Archie Goodwin leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.7 ppg. Kentucky boasts some of the best in the conference across the board. Alex Poythress is top in the conference for shooting at 60.8 percent. Kyle Wiltjer is second in the league for 3 pointers, at 41.1 percent. Nerlens Noels is second leading rebounder (9.5 rpg), leading blocked (7.8) and fourth in steals (2.2). As a team, Kentucky leads the SEC with 7.8 blocks per game, second in scoring margin (+13.7), field goals (49.0%), three point shots (36.6%), field goal defense (37.6%) and three point shot defense (29.7%). The Wildcats are third in scoring offense (76.2).
The Tigers projected lineup includes:
Allen Payne - F - Junior - 6'6, 215
Rob Chubb - C - Senior - 6'10, 250
Chris Denson - G - Junior - 6'2, 175
Shaquille Johnson - G - Freshman - 6'5, 210
Frankie Sullivan - G - 6'1, 206
More than anything, Auburn has to play great defense against Kentucky. Almost every guy on the floor in UK blue can score from almost anywhere on the court. Chubb played well against Anthony Davis last season and both he and ADT played decently in the last outing against Kentucky. It is fair to say that Noel has continued to improve as the season has progressed. Chubb and ADT did a much better job against Alabama but prior to that, it seemed they had taken a few steps back. Chubb and ADT both have the length and the size to give Noel a go, in addition to being able to sub in and out for one another to stay fresh, but the bigger question is will they deliver today?
I am intrigued to see what we get from Allen Payne today. Chris likes to refer to him as the "Payne Train" but I like to think of him as AP for "All-Purpose." Payne isn't a scoring machine but he has consistently gotten better at doing things that matter to set up the offense - rebounding, hustling after loose balls, steals, assists. It seems when Payne is on fire, he is just as critical to the team as when Sullivan is knocking down threes.
If Chubb, ADT and Payne have a solid game, we then look to the offense to see what they can deliver. Sullivan has struggled lately but will today be the day he stands strong on his shooting legs? Will we see threes from the Johnson duo? Can Wallace be able to elevate his aggressive play, as seen against Alabama's Trevor Releford, against the likes of Harrow? How much of the true freshman, other than Johnson, will we see today - Jordan Price, Brian Greene Jr, and Jordon Granger? It is easy for the fairweather fan to assume this game is in hand for Kentucky but for those of us that watcha lot of basketball, Auburn is a very capable team when it wants to be and Kentucky has faltered throughout the season.
My bigger concern for the game is not so much talent level or even offensive prowess but more in what is revealed in Tony Barbee's quote below on Kentucky.
"It's no surprise because it is what Coach Cal has always done in his career. His teams have always gotten better as they have gone deeper and deeper into conference play. Whether it is his veteran teams or the younger teams he's had, those guys grow, and they get better with him, and that is no different this year. You see them really starting to understand their jobs individually and when you put them all together collectively, they are all doing their job and are worried about what their job is and not somebody else's job. That is a little bit with what I am struggling with even after the win last night (vs. Alabama). We have guys who still don't get it and still don't understand it. They want to do somebody else's job when that is not their role right now. That is when you don't have guys who buy into what their job is and just doing that and their role. When they are worried about other people's role, then you are not as cohesive as a team. That is what I think Coach does better than anybody. He gets his guys to buy into doing their job, doing their role and not worried about anybody else's role. Then, the impact of that is winning, and the impact of winning is everybody looks good. This team doesn't seem to get that right now."
Tip off is set for 3:00PM CT at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. The game will be televised on the SEC Network and ESPN3. The color announcer is Kara Lawson. Hopefully she did some research this time to remember that the guys are Auburn Tigers and not Auburn Eagles. Audio coverage with Rod Bramlett and Paul Ellen starts at 2:30PM CT on the Auburn IMG Network.