10 keys to victory: Kentucky vs Auburn
The Cats are 2-1 in true road games this season but Saturday will be their most difficult test to date. Auburn enters the game as the 14th ranked team in the nation. Kentucky has lost two in a row at Auburn and hasn’t won there since 2015. If the Cats hope to snap the losing streak these are the keys to victory.
1. Dominate the glass- Auburn has more size inside than they have ever had during the Bruce Pearl era. It will make winning the rebounding battle a lot harder for Kentucky. The Cats have to figure out a way to come out ahead in this area because Auburn is deadly on second chance 3-point shots. They are also very good in transition which will make offensive rebounding even more important for Kentucky. The key to winning the rebounding match-up is for Hagans, Herro, Johnson and Quickley to focus on crashing the glass. If the Cats end up on the plus side it will be a step towards victory.
2. Guard the 3-point line- The Tigers average 11 made threes per game and they six players on their roster that shoot them regularly. They are going to make several 3’s no matter how Kentucky defends them but the key is to make them work for them. At times Auburn gets too dependent on the 3 and forgets to get the ball inside to their big men who are more than capable of scoring the ball. So the best game plan may be luring them into taking contested 3’s over the Cats length.
3. Contain Jared Harper-The key to Auburn’s offense is point guard Jared Harper who averages 15 points and 7 assists a game. He shoots over 40% from deep as well. Ashton Hagans will have his hands full trying to slow down the quick guard. Hagans will have an advantage in length and perhaps that will give Harper trouble. Last season the Cats could not contain him and he scored 18 points and dished out 7 assists. When Harper struggles his team struggles. Cut off the head and the Cats will have a good chance at a win but it will be easier said than done. Paging Mr. Hagans, your services are needed once again.
4. Protect the ball- Auburn loves to press and create havoc with their defense. They average 10 steals a game which is somewhat worrisome considering how turnover prone Kentucky has been at times this season. When the Tigers are getting steals and scoring in the open court it energizes their team. Kentucky has to limit their turnovers to less than 15. Much of that will be in the hands of the guards but the Cats front court has had some major turn over issues that they must stay away from on Saturday.
5. Nick and EJ have to play well- It doesn’t have to be both of them but one way or another they need 10 rebounds and 4 blocks from the duo. Scoring points is just an added bonus but the rebounding and defense is a must. I have called for Nick Richards to start instead of Reid Travis for the last few games but I think it might finally happen on Saturday. Auburn has some legit big men inside, starting with 6’11 junior Austin Wiley who averages 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks a game. Reid would have a very hard time defending him so when he is on the floor Nick is the best option to match-up with him. Chuma Okeke is a versatile 6’8 forward averaging 10 points, 6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. The other big contributor inside is Anfernee Mclemore who is just 6’7 but averages almost 2 blocks per game on top of 7 points and 5 rebounds. Other than Wiley the Cats have the size advantage inside as long as they good decent contributions from Nick or EJ. If the duo puts up a goose egg and Cal has to try to ride Reid and PJ it will make a victory a lot harder for the Cats.
6. Keldon needs to bounce back- After scoring zero points at Georgia the Cats need Johnson to bounce back with a good game. They need him to score the ball but they also need him to crash the boards better than he has the last two games. He is too strong and athletic to get just 2 or 3 rebounds. They need 6 or 7 rebounds from him and for him to drive the ball to the rim and draw fouls. 15 points and 7 rebounds from Keldon would really help the Cats have a shot at the win.
7. Make some 3’s but don’t get in a shooting contest- The Cats will need to make some 3’s to help negate the 3’s that Auburn will make. What they can not do is get sucked into a 3-point shooting contest with the Tigers. The Cats 3’s need to come off of drives to the basket or off of post-ups to Reid or PJ. If Kentucky can knock down 7 or more 3’s without taking more than 20 shots from beyond the arc it would be perfect.
8. Ashton Hagans must continue his assault on the SEC- He has been the teams MVP in SEC play and he needs to do it again on Saturday. As I mentioned earlier, his defense against Jared Harper will be a huge factor in the game. The Cats also need him to run the team with poise under the defensive pressure of Auburn. He needs to pick his spots and break down the Tigers off the dribble when possible. That creates scoring chances for him and does the same for his teammates. The Tigers back court is probably the best that Kentucky has faced this year so this will be a big time test for Ashton.
9. This should be a good match-up for Tyler Herro on offense- Herro will have a size advantage over whoever defends him and that may help him get some clean looks at the basket from deep. The Tigers will have a tough time defending his mid range game and drives to the basket because of his size. He hasn’t hit a 3 in two straight games but I feel sure that will change on Saturday. It has been good to see how he can impact the game without scoring from outside but it would be a great time for him to get hot from deep. I get the feeling that this will be a big game for Tyler.
10. Don’t let the crowd dominate the game- Of course it will be another sold out game and a crazy atmosphere. The Cats should be getting more familiar to that but Auburn feeds off of getting the crowd going with steals. The Cats need to work to limit the Tigers scoring runs and Cal may need to use a few key time outs to stop momentum.
The Cats will be an underdog according to Vegas and that seems pretty fair. I think this young team has made some big strides over the last few weeks and that should help them keep this game close for the majority of the contest. In the end I think fans will be happy with how the Cats play but they will come up a few points short of the win. The final score will be 81-78 in favor of Auburn. Cal says win or learn and this will probably be another valuable learning experience for Kentucky.