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Auburn vs. Kentucky preview: Tigers aim for statement win against Wildcats

Auburn will try to bounce back from a tough loss at Arkansas with a home game against Kentucky on Saturday evening at home. The Tigers are looking for their second win since 1990 against the Wildcats.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn vs. Kentucky, easily one of the most anticipated games of the season for Tigers fans, has arrived. It's a big game because it is Kentucky but, it is a bigger game ever since Tony Barbee came to town, because it is always an opportunity for him to beat his mentor, John Calipari. After a double-overtime loss at Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday, Auburn needs a win in front of the hometown faithful.

Kentucky, the perennial favorite of the SEC, has had an interesting season. Even with losses to nationally ranked teams during non-conference play -- Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and in-state rival Louisville -- the Wildcats were still expected to make a strong statement in conference play. However, after a loss at home to Texas A&M, the Wildcats are looking a bit vulnerable. Given that they come to Auburn without starting forward, Willie Cauley-Stein, one has to wonder if the scales are tipped in the Tigers' favor.

Auburn is projected to start junior forward Allen Payne (6'6, 215), senior center Rob Chubb (6'10, 250), freshman guard Shaquille Johnson (6'5, 210), senior guard Josh Wallace (5'10, 170) and senior guard Frankie Sullivan (6'1, 206). Expect senior forward Noel Johnson, freshman guard Brian Greene Jr. (6'3, 205) and junior guard Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7'0, 230) to come in off the bench and play significant minutes. Freshman forward Jordon Granger (6'9, 215) has made appearances in the last two games, so he could get in on the action, too. Freshman guard Jordan Price (6'5, 225) is still out with a stress fracture, but junior guard Chris Denson (6'2, 175), who has missed time with the same injury, has hinted he will return for Saturday's matchup. How much of Denson will we actually see?

Sullivan is averaging 17.8 points per game in conference play, second only to Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson, who checks in with 19.1 points per game. Greene Jr, is averaging 10.0 points in the last two games. much better than the 1.5 points in 11.5 minutes he was averaging earlier in the season. Shaq Johnson is showing his versatility with 7.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in the last four games, while Noel Johnson is shooting 43.9 percent from behind the arc. Wallace has a 4.9 assist/turnover rate in the last eleven games and leads the team in assists (18) and steals (27). Dixon-Tatum is the team leader for blocks (20) and dunks (10), and Chubb is sixth in the SEC in rebounding (7.6 per game) and has had back-to-back double-doubles.

With freshman forward Cauley-Stein (7'0, 244) out with a knee injury, the expected starters for Kentucky are freshman forwards Nerlens Noel (6'10, 228), and Alex Poythress (6'7, 239), freshman guard Archie Goodwin (6'4, 198), and sophomore guard Ryan Harrow (6'2, 170). Taking Cauley-Stein's place will most likely be sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer (6'10, 239), and senior guard Julius Mays (6'2, 192) will likely come off the bench.

The Wildcats are fresh off a 75-65 win over the Tennessee Volunteers in which Wiltjer had 17 points and Noel had 12 points, nine rebounds, six block, four steal and two assists. Prior to that game, Kentucky suffered an 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M last Saturday.

Goodwin leads the team in points per game with 15.2, and he also leads in rebounds (4.8) and assists (3.6). Poythress leads the SEC in shooting from the floor at 63.1 percent and 47.4 percent from behind the arc. Wiltjer is shooting 41.2 percent from three, and Noel is second in the conference with 9.3 rebounds per game.

In conference play, the Auburn is shooting 51.0 percent from the field and 41 percent from behind the arc, while the Tigers are holding opponents to 42.6 percent from the floor and 35.2 percent from three. Barbee's team is making free throws at a 66.8 percent clip, and it's averaging 33.7 rebounds and 16.0 turnovers per game. In contrast, the Wildcats are shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 30.0 percent from behind the arc, and Kentucky is limiting teams to shoot 45.6 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from three. The Wildcats are making 66.2 percent of their foul shots, and they best the Tigers with 38.7 rebounds per game and a turnover average of 13.3. From a pure numbers perspective, this game may come down to free throws and turnovers.

Tipoff for the sold out game is for 8 p.m. CT at Auburn Arena. The game will be televised on ESPNU and audio broadcast is available on the Auburn IMG Network / XM 199.