The biggest game of the weekend in college basketball might be an SEC showdown between the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats and the No. 2 Auburn Tigers. The two teams are a combined 11-1 in SEC play with Auburn still unbeaten within the league. That makes this game of great significance in the race for the SEC regular-season title.
Outside of a tough road loss against LSU, the Wildcats seem to be on a little bit of a roll. They’ve won eight of their last nine games to get to 15-3 overall and 5-1 inside the SEC. Last weekend, they blew out Tennessee by 28 points and then survived a tricky midweek road game against Texas A&M. However, the home win over Tennessee was by far Kentucky’s best win of the season, so the Cats will be challenged a road trip to Auburn.
The Wildcats are led by one of the best big men in the country in Oscar Tshiebwe. The West Virginia transfer has been dominant on the boards this season and unstoppable when he gets close to the basket, averaging 16.1 points and 14.8 rebounds per game. However, Tshiebwe has been held under 10 points in three of his last five games, including the loss to LSU, even if his rebound numbers remain steady. With opposing teams focusing their approach around Tishiebwe, the Wildcats need more out of their other frontcourt players. But Keion Brooks has been held under 10 points in five of his last six games. Likewise, Jacob Toppin and freshman Daimion Collins haven’t produced as much as expected this season.
That puts a little more pressure on the Kentucky backcourt, which is loaded. Freshman TyTy Washington and Davidson transfer Kellan Grady are both shooting over 40% from three-point range while combining to average over 25 points per game. Washington has proven to be a good passer, although Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler is the true point guard on the team, dishing out 7.1 assists per game while also averaging 10.4 points per game. However, the diminutive guard has had some trouble this year, as he was a non-factor in the loss to LSU and had eight turnovers against Texas A&M on Wednesday. When needed, the Wildcats can also turn to Davion Mintz, who was a starter last season and has been good in a supporting role this season.
Bruce Pearl tried to nitpick his team’s win over Georgia on Wednesday, but that’s something coaches have to do when their team is on a 14-game winning streak. The Tigers are 17-1 right now and 6-0 in SEC play. They’ve already beaten the likes of LSU, Florida, and Alabama and a win on Saturday would make them obvious favorites in the SEC.
Auburn is averaging over 80 points per game thanks to a deep and diverse offense. Freshman Jabari Smith is leading the way with 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He has a physical presence in the paint but is also averaging more than two assists per game and is shooting 43% from the perimeter. In other words, there’s nothing that he can’t do, allowing him to take over games at times. He’s complemented in the Auburn frontcourt by North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler. The 7’1’’ center started the seasons slowly and still has occasional bad games when he gets into foul trouble. But he’s also averaging 10.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while also dominating at the defensive end with 4.2 blocks per game.
At the same time, the Tigers have a strong contingent of guards that can make teams pay for giving Smith and Kessler too much attention. Wendell Green is the lead guard, contributing 13.1 points and 5.1 assists per game. K.J. Johnson is also averaging 12.8 points per game, as both he and Green and strong outside shooters. Meanwhile, Allen Flanigan just joined the fray after missing the first part of the season with an injury. The junior averaged 14.3 points per game for Auburn last season and has scored in double figures in three of the six games he’s played this season. As he starts to get more comfortable, the Auburn backcourt becomes even more dangerous. The Tigers can also look to Devan Cambridge and Zip Jasper for even more backcourt depth with Jasper being a capable backcourt at the point guard spot.
Believe it or not, Kentucky enters this game with more question marks. Auburn has been close to unbeatable this season while the Wildcats have seen some of their key players struggle in recent games. John Calipari’s team will have to be close to perfect if they hope to stay within striking distance and pull off the road win over Auburn because the Tigers are just that good.
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