The morning rundown: Kentucky vs Auburn
Kentucky will face Auburn for the third time this season, but this time a trip to the Final Four is on the line. Kentucky won the first meeting at Auburn by just two points. The Cats got up by as much as 17 points early in the second half, but the Tigers roared back on the hot shooting of Bryce Brown. He torched Kentucky for 28 points and made 6 of 7 3’s in the game. In that game both Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson had 20 points. The duo is a matchup problem for the Tigers small guards.
The second game was the Cats first game since losing Reid Travis to knee injury. The Cats played about as well as they have played all year and Auburn played as bad as they have all year. PJ Washington led Kentucky with 24 points and made 5 3’s. Keldon Johnson was a beast on the glass, pulling down a career high 17 rebounds. The leading scorer for Auburn was Chuma Okeke who had 14 points. Auburn has not lost since this game. The blowout seems to have served as a wake up call for them that has propelled them on an amazing run.
The biggest news going into this game is the loss of Chuma Okeke for Auburn, due to a torn ACL. He has been one of their best players during their winning streak and his absence will be big. Against Kentucky he combined for 25 points and 9 rebounds in the two contests. Auburn has depth and the main player that needs to step up for them is Danjel Purifoy. He was a highly rated recruit that was a double digit scorer in his freshman season. He then had to sit out his sophomore season because of NCAA eligibility issues. He also had to sit out the first 9 games for the same reason this season. He was expected to have a big impact when he returned to the lineup but Okeke had moved ahead of him and Purifoy also did not play well. He had a great game against North Carolina and is more than capable of filling the role that Okeke played. The key issue for Purifoy is that he has been very foul prone this season. If the Cats could get him in foul trouble it could be a problem for the Tigers since they are a man down.
PJ Washington was pretty certain that he would be playing today and said after some rest his foot was feeling decent. A big game from PJ and Reid Travis would be big today, because Auburn really does not have much to matchup with them inside. With that said I still believe that Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson are the biggest mismatches for Auburn and they need to play well for the Cats to advance.
Auburn has made 3’s at an insane clip in both the SEC and NCAA tournament. Kentucky must do everything they can to challenge their shots and make them as difficult as possible. The Tigers also thrive by creating turnovers and converting them into fast break opportunities. The Cats need to protect the ball today and that is especially true of Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. On top of that, the Tigers will try to get steals by doubling down on the post when Reid or PJ gets the ball inside. Making some shots from outside will help make it harder for Auburn to double the post. If the Cats could knock down 7 or 8 3’s it would be really big. The other thing to help keep them from being able to double team PJ is to get him the ball on the perimeter and let him face up against the Tigers. Then he can shoot the ball or drive on his man and break the defense down.
It should be a pro Kentucky crowd, but Auburn will have a strong contingent as well. I expect the Tigers to be fired up and ready to overcome the loss of Okeke. It will actually be a rallying point for them that helps them be more focused going into the game. They will look to run as much as possible which is ok with Kentucky but look for Cal to try to grind the game down a bit. He will want to get Auburn out of the style they like to play, so don’t be shocked if the game is not as high scoring as some would think. For Kentucky, this game will be decided with defense. They will be able to score points against Auburn, but can they slow them down and defend them will be the question. If the final score is held into the 70’s it will certainly favor Kentucky. If it gets up into the 80’s it will be a coin toss.
It is hard to beat any team three times, but it is extremely hard to beat a really good team three times. Kentucky matches up well with Auburn but the Tigers will be dialed in. I expect it to be a very close game for the entire contest. I think the Cats will come away with the win in the end but I would not be shocked if the Tigers won. My guess for the final score is 75-72 in Kentucky’s favor. The Final Four is on the line and getting there is going to be a battle. But it is a battle that John Calipari knows how to win.