NASHVILLE — Auburn big man Cinmeon Bowers welcomed the chance to play Kentucky even though UK won the regular-season game 110-75.
"We're ready for Kentucky," he said after Auburn beat LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals Friday. "We owe them. They got 110 points on us. Tomorrow? No. It's not going to go like that. We're going to play our best."
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl noted how Kentucky led 30-4 in the regular-season game.
"But I'm a glass half-full guy," he said. "So I'll say we scored 75 points. And I'm sure they'll try to make sure we don't score 25 points tomorrow."
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During the season, Pearl said that Auburn could beat anyone in the SEC except one team: Kentucky. The reason was the size differential.
"We're already the smallest team in the league, and probably the smallest team in all the high-major conferences," he said after the Tigers beat LSU. "Going up against the biggest team maybe in the history of Division I basketball.
"So it's a tough matchup."Guard K.C. Ross-Miller said Auburn must try to keep Kentucky's offense on the perimeter as much as possible.
"If they get it around the rim, it's pretty much a rout," he said. ". . . It's going to be a big challenge. But anything is possible. We've seen upsets. That's what college basketball is all about. Hopefully, we can catch them on one of those days. We're going to need them to help us out as well. And we're going to have to play well."
Until this week, Auburn had not won an SEC Tournament game since 2009, and had not won more than one since 2000.
The Tigers had won more than one SEC Tournament game only five times since the event began in 1933.
Auburn, which can match its four regular-season SEC victories by beating Kentucky in the league tournament, resisted the label of Destiny's Darlings.
"I don't think that," Pearl said, "and I've felt that way before . . . You feel, oh gosh, this is supposed to happen. I don't feel that way."
Pearl preferred to label Auburn's SEC Tournament victories over Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU as a reward for perseverance.
"It's just a great lesson," he said. "Adversity builds character. We never beat these guys up because it wasn't their fault."
If not destiny, then Bowers suggested divine intervention helped Auburn.
"We just put God first, you know what I mean?" he said. "He's making it happen."
Though sidelined since mid-December, Alex Poy-thress participated in Kentucky's 64-49 victory over Florida on Friday as a cheerleader, comforting presence and adviser.
"Little things I see," he said after the game. ". . . You have to give them little pointers. You don't have to be all loud, but you can tell them something here and there when you see something."
Of course, Poythress tore an anterior cruciate ligament two days before Kentucky played North Carolina on Dec. 13. He acknowledged the difficulty of having to sit and watch his teammates become the first regular-season unbeaten team from a major conference since Indiana in 1975-76.
"It's tough, it's tough," he said. "I'd give up anything to be out there on the floor playing again. But it's a long process. Injuries are part of the game."
When asked if he was sad to not be playing in such a special season or happy for his teammates, Poythress said, "It's both. Honestly, I do want to be playing. I love playing basketball. It's the first time I haven't been playing in a while. But at the same time, I'm proud of everybody."
Perhaps to encourage Poythress, UK Coach John Calipari noted in December that Poythress could still fulfill his ambition of being in an NBA Draft, including this year.
"I'm not thinking of that right now," Poythress said. "Neither is anybody else (on UK's team)."
Poythress said he's on schedule in his rehabilitation, which requires two or more hours of work per days. As for basketball activities, he said he shoots free throws and plays games of H-O-R-S-E.
"Just trying to be part of the team," he said.
When he shot an air ball in the regular season, Devin Booker pointed out that a defender tipped the ball. He confessed to an air ball against Florida.
"It was, it was," he said with a smile. "Hey, it happens. I'm OK with that."
When a reporter noted his surprise, Booker said, "I was stunned, too.
"Tomorrow, I won't air-ball."