With a big game in Auburn tomorrow, it was a good opportunity to ask someone who knows a lot more about Kentucky than I do, about how the Wildcats are doing this year.
Special thanks to Jason Marcum from A Sea of Blue for taking the time to answer my questions. I also took the opportunity to answer questions for their site and you find those questions and answers here!
1. This will be the first time these schools have played since the Elite 8 last year. Kentucky won the first 2 games last year, what changed from Kentucky’s perspective in the 3rd? Also, did you think Horace Spencer’s 3 at the end of regulation was going in?
JM: I think Kentucky’s rhythm was a little off with PJ Washington missing time and then coming back in the Sweet 16. As good as he played, it just felt like the offense lost its mojo between his injury and Reid Travis missing time. The chemistry they had when they clobbered No. 1 Tennessee just never came back once the injuries started. I think the freshman also started playing tighter when the stakes rose, whereas Auburn had more veterans ready to thrive on the biggest stage.
Oh no doubt. It felt like Auburn was going to win at that point and it was just a matter of when it happened.
2. How would you assess this group of freshman Coach Cal has assembled this year?
JM: They’re definitely one of his ‘weaker’ groups in terms of overall talent, but they have a lot of heart and fight tooth and nail to win. That fight is what’s kept this team afloat while the talent they do have hopefully catches up and starts to blossom later this season.
3. Nick Richards has really blossomed his junior year in Lexington. What’s been the biggest key to his success this season?
JM: Confidence in himself and that he won’t be benched if he screws up a few plays. He was too much of a liability in his first two seasons, so it was hard for him to ever build any confidence while playing behind better big men. But now that UK has been forced to play him and allow him to grow through his mistakes, he’s found himself. It took about 11 games and an 8-3 start before it came, but he’s the biggest reason this UK team has gone from looking like a bubble team to one that can do some serious damage in March.
4. Kentucky might be one of the most balanced scoring teams in the country with 4 guys scoring 13+ per game. If I told you one player pops off for 25 Saturday, who is it?
JM: If someone goes for 25, it’s going to be a guard. I don’t see Richards going off with Wiley and McLemore roaming the paint. And I think it would be a veteran who was around for last year’s crushing defeat to Auburn in the Elite Eight, so my guess is Immanuel Quickley. He really struggled in that OT loss to Auburn, so I’m sure he’s had this one circled on the calendar for awhile.
5. Where do you see Kentucky having the biggest advantage and what is your biggest concern heading into this matchup?
JM: The guards. Hagans, Quickley and Maxey make up one of the best defensive backcourts in America. When Quickley gets hot, he’s as good as any shooter in America. Hagans ruins opposing point guards, and Maxey is a solid two-way player who tends to thrive on the biggest stages, and Saturday is easily one of UK’s biggest games of the season.
My concern is depth. UK is essentially down to eight scholarship players, and the guys coming off the bench have been wildly inconsistent. If guys like Nick Richards get in foul trouble - which happened against Vanderbilt and the Dores led by 7 at halftime - this could get ugly.
6. Does Cal just like feel bad for Tony Barbee? Why is he on staff? Does he do anything?
JM: Ha. We all thought the same for awhile, but he’s been more productive on the recruiting trail. He was a big factor in UK landing Terrence Clarke. He also was a big reason why UK landed DJ Jeffries in the last class, though he decommitted when UK landed Kahlil Whitney and Dontaie Allen. Low and behold, Jeffries has been significantly better this season.
Barbee also has helped with the zone defense when UK has run it. He catches a lot of flack, but he’s not the black hole of an assistant coach many want to believe he is.
7. As the historical basketball power in the SEC, what gives even a group of Kentucky fans the right to mock an injured Chuma Okeke with that sign and what does it say about how awful part of your fanbase truly is?
JM: Well, we have a very large fanbase, and the bigger they are, the more crazy fans there will also be in turn. It’s very sad that any fan would resort to something like that, but I know that doesn’t reflect the majority of UK fans. That’s just sadly one of the ugly part of sports. I will say when Auburn won the Elite Eight game, there was a little happiness in me that ‘those’ fans were sad. They deserve all the misery of that loss and then some.
8. How do you see this matchup playing out on Saturday? Do you have a score prediction?
JM: UK is going to bring their A game to Auburn Arena since many of these guys played in that Elite Eight game, and I think they’ll push Auburn to the limit in a game that’s decided in the final minute.
But I think Auburn really needs this game from a resume standpoint. Their best three wins are probably Mississippi State, NC State and...Furman? The Tigers have to beat someone to show the nation they’re legit, and I’m a believer in them, so I think this is the day they get a real signature win.
I’m going with a 72-70 win for Auburn.
9. Finally let’s end this with a fun question: Give us one Kentucky bourbon we haven’t heard of that we need to try.
JM: Eagle Rare Bourbon Whiskey