Big Blue Looms Large
Auburn has conquered a lot of milestones this season, from the win in Knoxville to finally beating the Vanderbilt Commodores. There are other accomplishments that the Auburn basketball team has stacked up like the SEC wins and sitting alone at the top of the league.
Kentucky has also met its share of milestones this season. Blue Blue finds itself out of the Top 25 polls and sporting six SEC losses while in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Although the coming showdown between Auburn and Alabama, which will likely be a meeting between ranked teams inside of Auburn arena, could be the marquee SEC game of the year, it is tonight’s match-up between Auburn and Kentucky that is the most important game the Tigers have played yet.
That may sound funny considering the reasons that Kentucky is down. After all, Auburn has won some important games, which has helped elevate them to a Top 10 ranking for the first time in nearly two decades.
Why would this game be special? Because it’s Kentucky?
Yes, it’s certainly a perception game, but for all the right reasons. Kentucky is still Big Blue Nation. Those five star players and potential NBA talent isn’t going away. There isn’t a sports commentator that follows the SEC that doesn’t think, regardless of what seed, that Kentucky can win the SEC Tournament and do it in style. Even though the ‘Cats are reeling, there isn’t a team in the nation that could stop the bleeding in one game and go on to win the Big Dance except Kentucky.
The same is not said about Auburn. That’s been the case all season, and Auburn is still considered a Cinderella Story despite the fact that the tournament is only weeks away. Truth be told, it would be shocking if Auburn were to win the SEC tournament, and there aren’t enough superlatives to project a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Still, Auburn plays Kentucky tonight, and perceptions could be drastically changed, at least for the Tigers.
Perceptions about the Auburn Tigers will be formed based upon what happens down low. This game and this season is going to be decided by just how well Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer play. Everyone in the country knows Auburn can shoot the rock. Everyone knows Auburn wants to get steals and run the floor. And, if Auburn does that well, it can beat anyone in the country, including Kentucky. A lot of teams that Auburn has played have tried to slow down the pace, but the ones that have been successful have done so by using their imposing big men, something there isn’t a lot of in the SEC. Texas A&M demolished Auburn on the inside. Alabama did a good job. Both came away with wins against the SEC’s top-ranked team. Each of those teams has talent and a good big man, but there isn’t a team in the SEC with the type of talented big men that litter the Kentucky bench.
Kentucky’s 6′ 9″ and 6′ 11″ forwards, Kevin Knox and Nick Richards, average 21 points per game combined, with Knox racking up 15 per contest. It’s the 11 rebounds per game and the team’s five blocks per game that will really test Auburn. Keep in mind, those are per-game averages, and Kentucky plays one of the hardest schedules in college basketball. It would be a miracle just to hold those two to their averages, but it should be fully expected that they exceed them. The question is, can McLemore and Spencer keep them from going off tonight and potentially opening the floor for Kentucky’s premier guards?
The good news is that Bryce Brown is expected to play, which should do wonders to holding freshman phenom guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to something around his 13-point average. While it would be terrific for Brown to have a big night shooting, Auburn has continually shown the ability to get points elsewhere when needed.
It sounds funny to be happy to hold the Kentucky Wildcats to their averages while expecting a win and not just a respectable contest. That’s because Kentucky is averaging 76 points per game and giving up 70. ESPN BPI gives Auburn a 78% chance to win, the Vegas spread is Auburn -8 points, and the over/under is 158 points. Those numbers may seem silly, but for Auburn to win, an even sillier number must come to fruition: four straight losses for Kentucky. That number alone should make every Auburn fan extremely wary. Yes, it’s just a number, just like all the averages listed above, but one that seems impossible. But, if any team can defy odds, it’s the Auburn Tigers.
Auburn tips off at 8:00 PM CT on ESPN2. Make sure to follow me as I live tweet @Best5Zach.