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Kentucky at Auburn Game Preview, Q&A, and Open Thread

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Things look much different this season for last season’s top 2 SEC teams and A Sea of Blue joins us to talks Cats!

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday January 16, 2021

Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Tigers

Auburn Arena

Time: 1 PM

Network: ESPN, Auburn Radio Network

Last season when Kentucky came to Auburn, it was a culmination of how far the Auburn Basketball program had come in the last 5 years. College Gameday was in town and the place was electric for the show and then even more so during the game. For me personally, I had no idea it would be the last time I would be in Auburn Arena for who knows how long but it was a special day in Auburn, Alabama.

Fast forward a year and things look so much different. Last year’s SEC Champions are 4-7 and have looked wildly inconsistent. Meanwhile, the last team to win the SEC Tournament are 7-6 and rebuilding after having to replace almost their entire group of scorers from last year. Put that together and you’ve got two very young and inexperienced teams that have had their ups and downs this season.

Throughout this preview, you will see a Kentucky perspective on today’s matchup as Jason Marcum from Kentucky’s SB Nation site, A Sea of Blue, was kind enough to answer some questions about the Cats that hopefully gives us some clarity on the struggles we’ve seen in Lexington this season. This is the third straight year he has done this for us and we’re really thankful for his insight. His thoughts are in bold below.

Get to Know Kentucky

Kentucky comes in averaging 68.2 PPG this season but are one of the best teams in the country at blocking shots as they average 6.5 blocks per game. Just for comparison, Auburn comes in at 5.6 blocks per game.

Kentucky got to a 1-6 start this season, the worst in over a century but bounced back to win their first 3 SEC games. Then they lost by 20 at home Tuesday night to Alabama. They’ve dealt with other issues throughout the year but it’s safe to say that it’s been one heckuva a roller coaster season for this year’s Kentucky Wildcats.

JM: “I think it’s a variety of things. Though this team has experienced players, none of them played together before. Keion Brooks and Dontaie Allen are the only returners, and Allen missed most of last season while rehabbing from a torn ACL. Everyone else is brand new, and because of COVID, they didn’t get a normal offseason to work out together. Plus, they lost assistant coach Kenny Payne to the NBA. Though not the head man, Payne has been a big reason behind Kentucky’s success since John Calipari got here. Karl-Anthony Towns said, “KP is the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.”

“And finally, while Devin Askew and Davion Mintz have been solid, they haven’t been the level of point guard that’s required for Kentucky to be successful under Calipari. This is probably the worst point guard situation Kentucky has had since the 2013 NIT team.”

Auburn fans can relate to what happens when they don’t have a Point Guard.

Leading the way for Kentucky in scoring is freshmen guard Brandon Boston (#3). Boston is averaging 12.1 PPG and 5.3 RPG this year, but he’s shooting just 35.6% this season and had his share of ups and downs this year.

JM: “Things are definitely way off for him. He was being hyped up as potentially one of the best scorers to ever play at UK under Calipari. But he’s been closer to 2013 leading scorer Archie Goodwin, who, to put it nicely, was a black hole on offense, and Boston has been about the same. The big thing with him is his weight and physicality. He’s still a pretty thin guy for someone playing in a Power 5 league, especially out on the wing. I think he just needs a year or two in the weight room for his game to catch up to the college level.”

After missing the first 9 games due to a calf injury, Kentucky got sophomore Keion Brooks (#12) back for the Florida game last Saturday. He’s the only guy on the roster that scored a point for Kentucky last season. Brooks is averaging 11 PPG in his 2 games back and should help give the Cats a lift in his 3rd game back this season.

JM: “He’s a very solid player who gives this team another much-needed scorer in the paint. He can stretch the floor but is 0/4 from deep thus far. He’s also very active on defense and usually gets a steal and a block per game. He can be a good passer as well, which we saw in the Florida blowout when he had four assists. I think as he shakes the rust off, he’ll eventually be Kentucky’s 3rd/4th-most important player.”

Freshmen Terrence Clarke (#5) is questionable with an ankle injury and hasn’t played since December 26th against Louisville. Clarke is averaging 10.7 PPG this season in 7 games.

Freshmen guard Devin Askew (#2) has played better in SEC play averaging nearly 11 PPG in 4 SEC games. He’s averaging 8.1 PPG and is tied for the team lead in assists.

One of the biggest stories in the last couple of weeks on the College Basketball circuit was the emergence of Redshirt Freshmen Dontaie Allen (#11) from the Kentucky bench. A Kentucky native in his own right, Allen sat out last season and redshirted after suffering a torn ACL his senior year of high school. He played a total of 20 minutes during the non-conference schedule and Cats fans had wanted to see Allen play more given the struggles and Coach Cal cut him loose against Mississippi State in the SEC opener. Allen made 7 3s and it appeared Kentucky had found a shooter they were desperately missing.

JM: “The problem with Dontaie is, for all the offense he brings, he’s struggled mightily on defense at times, and he’s not good with the ball if it’s not catch-and-shoot. He just had a career-high four turnovers in the loss to Alabama, who’s full of guards who like to pressure. His three-point shooting should keep him in games, but he has to continue improving on defense (he has made progress) and ballhandling if he wants to keep playing 20+ minutes a game when Terrence Clarke eventually returns.”

One of the matchups we are excited to see on Saturday is JT Thor vs Kentucky freshmen Isaiah Jackson (#23). Jackson had 8 blocks against Kansas earlier this year and had 7 Tuesday night against Alabama. He’s averaging 6.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG and over 3 blocks a game. How Auburn tries to attack Jackson will be critical in this game.

JM: “Well, he’ll be a major issue for Auburn and most teams when he’s not in foul trouble. But like too many freshmen who love blocking shots, he tends to leave his feet too often and commits unnecessary fouls that keep him on the bench far too often. He did better in that regard against Alabama and actually showed off some nice touch at the free-throw line. That and lob dunks are about the only offensive threat he’s brought before, so if he can actually improve his post moves and actually be the one drawing fouls, he could really wreak some havoc Saturday. Or he could pick up two quick fouls and be benched most of the first half.”

While we’ve spent most of the time talking about the freshmen, it’s time to talk transfers. Kentucky has 3 players on this year’s roster who transferred into the program after last season.

First up is senior forward Olivier Sarr (#30), the transfer from Wake Forest. Sarr is averaging 10.7 PPG along with 5.5 RPG. Big things were expected from him this season as he was 3rd-Team All-ACC last year averaging 13.7 PPG along with 9.0 RPG for the Demon Deacons.

JM: “Sarr has been a big disappointment. He has too many games where he’s a complete ghost in the post and hasn’t been the consistent paint contributor UK was really counting on him to be.”

Grad Student Davion Mintz (#10) has had to play a much bigger role than anticipated after coming over from Creighton. Mintz has ran the point averaging 9.8 PPG this season.

JM: “Mintz has been about what we thought Mintz would be. The problem is Devin Askew wasn’t was to run the point, and Terrence Clarke only did it a handful of games before being injured. That’s forced Mintz to take on a bigger role, which he’s done well with, but he’s still Kentucky’s 5th/6th/7th best player.”

Finally, sophomore forward Jacob Toppin (#0) has come off the bench and is averaging 4.3 PPG this season. Jacob of course is the younger brother of former Dayton Flyer Obi Toppin and came to Lexington after beginning his career at Rhode Island.

JM: “I think Toppin has exceeded expectations, just for the simple fact no one was expecting him to play much with so many other talented forwards on this team. The injury to Keion Brooks Jr. allowed Toppin to play more and make a solid impact.”

Keys for Auburn

I’ve been looking forward to this game to see Justin Powell face his home-state Wildcats but the update on Friday didn’t sound promising that he would return after missing the last 3 games due to a concussion suffered at Texas A&M. Auburn was also without Chris Moore Wednesday night as he’s dealing with a wrist injury. It’s possible he returns today and with all the big men the Cats possess, his return would be huge for Auburn’s bench.

Sharife Cooper continued to impress us on Wednesday night going for 28 points, 12 assists and 5 rebounds at Georgia. Now that he’s got 2 games under his belt, he seems more comfortable and will likely look to assert himself even more. I’ve heard some comparisons to Trae Young and heard one of a Tyler Ullis, a former Kentucky Wildcat as well. Cooper is going to turn the ball over at times but it’s his 3-point shooting I’m the most concerned with right now as he’s just 1-11 from 3-point range. I think Cooper is going to have make some shots on the perimeter today with the shot blockers Kentucky possesses.

Auburn scored 95 points on Wednesday night and they were just 5-20 from 3. What’s improved dramatically the last 2 games has been free throw shooting. Part of that is Sharife Cooper’s entrance into the lineup but in the last 2 games, Auburn is 24-28 and 20-26 from the line.

J.T. Thor looks to have also found his rhythm and getting Cooper certainly helps but Thor looks even more comfortable in his last two outings and is playing more like the Top 10 recruit he was projected to be in next year’s class before reclassifying.

Devan Cambridge was the odd guy out of the starting lineup when Cooper arrived last Saturday but he’s played much better as a 6th man of sorts. He’s averaging 12 PPG and had 5 blocked shots Wednesday, as did Jaylin Williams. He’s hit just 3 3-pointers in the last 4 games and it would be great for Auburn if he could hit about 3 or 4 in today’s game.

Prediction

I’ll let Jason kick us off with his prediction:

“I think Kentucky responds from Tuesday’s debacle with a much better performance at Auburn in what I think will be a down-to-the-wire game. Auburn is clearly a different team now that Sharife Cooper is in the lineup and looks like Trae Young. And it looks like Justin Powell could play. You know the Kentucky boy is dreaming of lighting UK up. This is a game Kentucky could really use Terrence Clarke if for no other reason than his perimeter defense. He’d be a big asset in slowing Auburn’s guards down, but my guess is he doesn’t play due to his lingering ankle injury.

Though it comes down to the final minute, I see Auburn making the winning plays down the stretch and coming away with a 75-70 victory.”

As for me....

I agree with Jason when it comes to thinking that the Cats will play much better today. Kentucky’s coming to town angry after their performance on Tuesday and some off the court things taking place this week. Auburn’s won 3 of the last 4 times that this game has played in Auburn Arena but this time, there won’t be the raucous Jungle there has been in previous years. Still, I think Auburn turned a corner on Wednesday against Georgia and I think this will come down to the closing moments but I think Cooper makes a play or two at the end to make the difference.

Auburn 81 Kentucky 75