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#17 Auburn vs #13 Kentucky Game Preview and Open Thread

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It’s one of the BIGGEST home games in Auburn Arena History!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs Kentucky Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Date: Saturday February 1st

Opponent: #13 Kentucky Wildcats

Location: Auburn Arena

Time: 5PM

Network: ESPN, Auburn Radio Network

So you might remember what happened the last time these two teams went up against each other. If you don’t, well.....

As great as last year was, it’s time to look forward to this year. For more on Kentucky, check out this Q&A I did with A Sea of Blue leading up to this game. Kentucky returns to Auburn Arena for the first of 2 matchups between the schools this season. The Wildcats won a thriller in Auburn last season 82-80, snapping a 2-game losing streak inside Auburn Arena.

As big as last year’s matchup was, today’s game might be even bigger.

Today is more than just a game, it’s a celebration of how far Auburn Basketball has come in the last 4 years.

Get to Know Kentucky

Yes, the Wildcats have some losses that will make you scratch your head: Evansville, Utah and South Carolina. But the Wildcats also have wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Texas Tech in Lubbock last Saturday. As the season goes along, as it does every year, Kentucky continues to evolve and get better and this year’s group is no exception. Kentucky has 4 guys averaging at least 13 points per game which makes it difficult for Auburn to figure out who they want to focus their defense on the most. Kentucky will go with an 8 man rotation for this one. And unlike previous Kentucky team’s, this is not a group full of freshmen, they have upperclassmen guys that have taken on big roles for this year’s team. As a team, they average 75.5 PPG and give up just 65 PPG. Another key stat to point out: as a team, they shoot 77.4% from the free throw line. If the game’s close late, Kentucky has a clear advantage in free throw shooting.

Junior Forward Nick Richards (#4) - 14.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG

Richards has taken a huge step forward in his 3rd year in Lexington. Over his first 2 seasons, he averaged 12-15 minutes a game and 4-5 PPG. This year he’s drastically increased his scoring and rebounding output as he’s played a much bigger role in Kentucky’s gameplan. He has a chance to be this year’s SEC Player of the Year if he continues to play at this level and finally have the chance to cash in and move onto the NBA after this season. On the road in 4 games, he’s averaging 18.5 PPG and 9.3 RPG. In the last tough road environment he faced, Richards had 25 points and 14 rebounds against Texas Tech so he’s not going to shy away from playing in a tough road environment. His experience in these games is a big plus for Kentucky as well as he’s been to Auburn Arena on 2 previous occasions before today’s game.

Sophomore Guard Immanuel Quickley (#5) - 13.8 PPG, 39.5% 3-point shooter

Quickley is the guy I worry about today because of his 3-point shooting ability. He’s shooting above 50% from 3 in SEC play (20-39). You also don’t want to put him on the free throw line in close games as he’s a 91.5% free throw shooter. Quickley also plays heavy minutes for them as he holds down the 2 position in the Kentucky backcourt.

Freshman Guard Tyrese Maxey (#3) - 13.2 PPG

Maxey leads Coach Cal’s group of freshmen this season. He’s had his biggest games against the best competition scoring 27 against Louisville and 26 against Michigan State. He’s been averaging around 12 a game in league play so far this season.

Sophomore Guard Ashton Hagans (#0) - 13.2 PPG, 7.2 APG

Hagans decision to come back to Lexington has paid off for him. He is close to doubling his scoring average from last year along with his assists. He is also Kentucky’s best defenders as well and will give Auburn’s backcourt fits when the Tigers have the ball. Hagans is turnover prone though, averaging 3.4 turnovers per game.

Sophomore Forward EJ Montgomery (#23) - 6.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG

Scoring wise, Kentucky’s production drops off quite a bit after the top 4 scorers. Montgomery, the former Auburn commit, has had his ups and downs throughout his Kentucky career but rest assured, he will want to play well against Auburn. Montgomery has been inconsistent though, only reaching double figures in scoring once in SEC play.

Grad Student Forward Nate Sestina (#1) - 6.6 PPG, 41% 3-point shooter

Like Reid Travis was last season, Sestina was brought in as a veteran presence on Kentucky’s primarily young roster. Sestina came to Lexington from Bucknell where he averaged 15.8 PPG and 8.5 last season. Sestina doesn’t have to carry the load for this team and he is the team’s leading 3-point shooter this year.

Keys for Auburn

Kentucky has depth concerns as most of their starters play 34-40 minutes a game, especially in SEC play. For Auburn, attack the rim and try to get these guys into foul trouble would go a long way into Auburn having success. Auburn is one of the best in the country at free throw attempts compared to field goal attempts. The key for Auburn will be to convert from the free throw line. While Kentucky shoots 77.4% from the line, Auburn shoots just 66.7%.

I think today is a day that Samir Doughty needs to be that guy for Auburn. Doughty has averaged 17.5 PPG in his last 2 outings after falling into a shooting slump in the middle part of January. This would be a great time for #HeadBandSamir to come out and play with a vengeance like he did earlier this year.

Anfernee McLemore tied his career-high with 19 points in Oxford in a game where he hit 5 3-pointers in the Double OT win. Auburn has no chance of winning that game without Anfernee stepping up big time. I think he could carry that over to today. If you remember the game in Auburn 2 years ago, Mac was the best player on the floor. While he will continue to Bruce’s first guy off the bench, it gives Auburn a change of pace with their big men as he contrasts with Wiley’s style of play in the paint.

This is a game for Isaac Okoro to step up and take more charge offensively. He’s made big baskets and he doesn’t force too much, but I would like to continue to see him be more aggressive as a scoring threat. On the national stage, with everyone watching, now is Isaac’s time to shine.

Other than Anfernee, will there will be an unsung hero step up for Auburn? Auburn hasn’t gotten much bench production from Jamal Johnson, Allen Flanigan or Devan Cambridge (other than his 26 point game against South Carolina). Could today be the day 1 of those 3 step up and hit some big shots off the bench for Auburn?

Prediction

This is gonna be a rock fight. I think whoever wins this game will have won the matchup of big men. If Nick Richards outplays Wiley and McLemore, Kentucky wins. If McLemore/Wiley outplay Richards, Auburn wins. Auburn needs this game more than Kentucky for the national perception, a signature win and to remind America that they haven’t gone anywhere. It’s at home and Auburn Arena will (better) be rocking. I can’t wait to see it all unfold but in the end, I think playing at home gives Auburn a slight edge.

Auburn 71 Kentucky 67