Kentucky gets to play a new role on Saturday in Rupp Arena: the older, battled-tested, experienced team.
Of course, Kentucky remains dependent on freshmen. The two leading scorers, and three of the top five scorers are freshmen.
The same is true of Auburn . . . only more so. The Tigers’ top three scorers are freshmen, and four of the top five.
“The freshmen are the leaders of the team,” said Sonny Smith, a former Auburn coach who now serves an analyst on radio broadcasts of Auburn games. “They are the better players on the team.”
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Auburn, which has already matched last season’s 11 victories, has been hurt by freshman forward Danjel Purifoy being sidelined with a sprained ankle. Purifoy, the second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg), sat out the last 27 minutes at Ole Miss last weekend and missed Tuesday’s game at Missouri.
“The loss of Danjel is just huge,” Coach Bruce Pearl said after Auburn beat Missouri 77-72. “Nobody can really replace him.”
Smith echoed the sentiment on Thursday. He said Purifoy, whose first name is pronounced Dan-jell, helped fill an aching need for Auburn.
“That has really hurt the team,” Smith said of Purifoy’s injury, “because the team had had a problem rebounding. It’s not a real good rebounding team, and he had turned it into an outstanding rebounding team. With him out, they’re having a little rebound problem. . . . He’s going to be badly missed.”
Opponents have outrebounded Auburn, on average, 40.4-37.6.
Guard Mustapha Heron, whom Auburn bills as the first five-star prospect in program history, leads the Tigers in scoring (16.2 ppg), rebounding (6.4 rpg), shots (177) and free throw attempts (105). Heron, who scored 30-plus points in the Derby Festival Classic last spring in Louisville, has made 41.4 percent of his three-point shots and 79 percent of his free throws.
Auburn has more turnovers (217) than assists (207), which leads to the conclusion that its primary strength and weakness is one and the same: five freshman regulars.
“They’re very, very young,” Smith said. “That’s their biggest drawback. They’ve never had the stage they’re fixing to face up there.”
With that said, Smith recalled a 72-71 December loss to Boston College in Madison Square Garden.
“That gave them a shot at something like they’re going to be looking at (in Rupp Arena),” he said.
The three-pointer — the great equalizer, as former UK coach Rick Pitino once called it — figures prominently in Auburn’s offense. Among Southeastern Conference teams, only Vanderbilt has taken more three-point shots than Auburn. Heron, Purifoy and TJ Lang have each made more than 34 percent of their shots beyond the arc.
“They are a quick-shooting team,” Smith said. “They play a fast tempo, which is something that falls into Kentucky’s hands a little bit. But that’s how they play.”
When asked how a coach ponders his team’s playing style accentuating an opponent’s strength, Smith said, “If it was a veteran team, you could make adjustments. And I don’t know if they can. They’re so used to up-tempo, and they’re so used to playing fast, they’re so used to shooting a lot of threes. . . .
“It’s a style they’ve fallen into, and it’s hard to get them out of it even playing a team like Kentucky.”
Purifoy’s injury adds uncertainty to Auburn’s somewhat chaotic approach. He is one of 11 players who average double-digit minutes.
At Missouri, Auburn’s bench scored 43 points.
“Right now, given the fact we are a mish-mash, we will take it,” Pearl said of the victory. “ . . . I felt like I was a hockey coach, sending them over the boards and changing lines.”
Even with so many freshmen in the rotation, Auburn has gone into games well prepared, Smith said. “As well as a team of freshmen can be,” he said. “At times, five freshmen can be on the floor.”
Of course, this is same old-same old for Kentucky, which has used freshmen as a foundation.
Perhaps, Auburn can more fully appreciate what John Calipari has done. Smith suggested the UK program can be inspiring.
“He’s been able to do it/we should be able to do it type of approach,” Smith said. “But he’s been preparing with better freshmen than most everybody else.”
Auburn at No. 6 Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)