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#14 Auburn vs. #12 Kentucky Game Preview and Open Thread

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s a pretty significant basketball game taking place at Auburn Arena today.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Date: Saturday January 19th

Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats

Location: Auburn Arena

Time: 3:00PM

Network: ESPN, Auburn Radio Network

Well ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had this game on our calendars since August and we have made it! Today is a huge day in the history of Auburn Basketball. National TV games on ESPN in a prime Saturday slot is what Bruce Pearl dreamed about when he became the coach here in 2014. Today is a chance to show the country what Auburn Basketball is all about. From the team to the fanbase, this is an opportunity for Auburn to state their case as one of the teams to beware of as we get deeper into SEC play. This game can go a long way to putting America on notice about the Auburn Tigers. Heck, it’s such a big game, legendary Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale will be on the call for today’s game and I’ve been told it’s been about 20 years since he’s done a game in Auburn. Regardless of how people may feel about him, that’s big time! It’s a golden opportunity to show the country what this team is capable of this season. Yes, there’s been ups and downs so far this year but all of Auburn’s goals are still in front of them. Both teams come into today’s game at 13-3 with Kentucky sitting 3-1 in the SEC while Auburn is 2-1.

Get to Know Kentucky...

Kentucky and Coach John Calipari brings another talented group of Wildcats into Auburn Arena this season. Auburn has defeated Kentucky 75-70 and 76-66 in the last 2 meetings inside Auburn Arena. Like Auburn, Kentucky has had ups and downs this season, the bad losing by 34 on opening night to Duke, while also losing close games against Seton Hall and Alabama. However, the good is the Wildcats have wins over North Carolina and Louisville and come into today’s game fresh off a 20 point win at Georgia Tuesday evening. Kentucky has also given up fewer than 50 points in their last 2 games and have become more reliant on defense to win games this year.

Normally I start these highlighting the leading scorer but today, the first Wildcat you need to know about is freshmen point guard (#2) Ashton Hagans. Hagans reclassified to play on this year’s Kentucky team and after a slow start, Hagans has found his role and the Wildcats have flourished due to his leadership While only averaging 7.6 points a game so far this year, he’s primarily dangerous because of his defense. Hagans is the first Wildcat ever to have 3 or more steals in 6 consecutive games. His streak started in his breakout game, when he recorded 8 steals against the Tar Heels. In league play, he’s scored in double figures in all 4 games, including a career high 23 in his home state of Georgia Tuesday night. How he fares guarding Jared Harper is one of the keys to today’s game.

Kentucky’s leading scorer is freshman guard (#3) Keldon Johnson, averaging 14.6 points a game. He comes into this game after going scoreless against Georgia so look for him to be looking to score in this contest. Auburn has done a good job on opposing teams leading scorers in SEC play.

The same can’t be said for team’s second leading scorers as the trio of Terence Davis (Ole Miss) scored 27 points against Auburn, Nicolas Claxton (Georgia) scored 15 and Savion Flagg (Texas A&M) scored 22 points against the Tigers. So the person that has me concerned tomorrow for Kentucky is freshmen guard (#14) Tyler Herro. He leads the team in 3 pointers made and attempted and has the ability to knock down at least 4-5 3-pointers in today’s game. Auburn has to do a good job of containing him and hoping he doesn’t get hot from long range.

We’ve talked exclusively about Kentucky’s guards so far so now it’s time to move into the paint for some matchups I’m excited to see. Tomorrow we get to see Chuma Okeke, Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer go up against Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and former Auburn commit E.J. Montgomery.

Travis (#22) is the highly regarded graduate transfer from Stanford who hasn’t had the level of success so far in SEC play expected out of him. Travis is 3rd on the team in scoring with 12.8 points a game along with 6.4 rebounds a game. Then there’s sophomore (#25) P.J. Washington who is one of the few current Wildcats that have played at Auburn Arena before. Washington has had some inconsistencies throughout his Kentucky career but when fully engaged, he can easily be one of Kentucky’s best players on the court. He is averaging 11.8 points a game and is the team’s leading rebounders at 7.9 rebounds a game. Richards (#4) and Montgomery (#23) give Coach Cal about 10-15 minutes each off the bench to round out Kentucky’s frontcourt.

Finally, rounding out Kentucky’s rotation is freshmen guards (#5) Immanuel Quickley, an offensive minded point guard and (#13) Jemarl Baker Jr. who has seen increased minutes since the beginning of SEC play.

What to Look for from Auburn...

Auburn has got to make their 3 point shots today in order to win today and throughout 15 games, Auburn is shooting 35.9% on the season. Auburn has made at least 8 3s in every home game this year and are shooting 39.3% at home while away from home, that percentage drops to 31.5% away from Auburn Arena. The good news of course is that this game is in Auburn Arena.

The guard play in this game is another matchup to watch as Jared Harper goes up against Ashton Hagans at the point guard spot. I look for Auburn to run and try to speed Kentucky up to not allow the Wildcats to get into their half-court defense which has been terrific lately. As we know, Auburn plays much better up tempo than in the half court so this is another must for Auburn.

Next, Anfernee McLemore has come on strong the last 2 games and in last year’s contest, he was the best player on the floor down the stretch for either team. He had 13 points and 11 rebounds that and made several key plays that created separation in the final 6 minutes of that game. The team seems to be more energized with McLemore’s re-emergence and while I expect him to continue coming off the bench, it gives the Tigers yet another interior body to lean on that can come in and make 3s while also blocking shots.

Finally, I look for Chuma Okeke to build off of Wednesday’s game against Texas A&M where he was more aggressive on the offensive end and posted his first double figure scoring performance in SEC play with 10 points and 7 rebounds. He has a much tougher task today than he did on Wednesday but hopefully with guys all over the court capable of making 3-pointers, it opens holes in the Kentucky defense to allow Auburn to go to work in the paint.

Score Prediction

The atmosphere in Auburn Arena will be one of the best, if not the best atmosphere in College Basketball this weekend.

Some people at ESPN have been hyping this game up for a few weeks now.

This is a golden opportunity for Auburn to jump back into the Top 10 with several teams in front of Auburn already losing this week. Auburn averages about 91 points a game at home but I think this will be a lower scoring game than what we usually see inside Auburn Arena as both teams are solid defensively. If this game was in Lexington, I’d lean towards the Cats but this game’s in Auburn Arena and because of that, I think Auburn pulls out a nail-biter.

Auburn 69 Kentucky 66