Auburn is trending up. Kentucky is trending down. Auburn has won 10 of 12 Southeastern Conference games. Kentucky has lost three straight. Little suggests middle-of-the-pack Kentucky can upset conference leader Auburn on Wednesday night.
Then again, this isn’t mission impossible. UK was ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press in its preseason college basketball poll. Auburn was picked to finish ninth in the 14-team SEC. Improbable does not mean incapable.
With that in mind, here are five ways John Calipari’s Cats can shock Bruce Pearl’s Tigers in Auburn Arena:
1. UK must take advantage of its height advantage.
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Auburn is very good, but Auburn is very small. Pearl doesn’t start anyone over 6-foot-7. With 6-11 center Austin Wiley ineligible for the season, there’s not an available player on the roster taller than 6-9. Auburn wins with its smalls, not its bigs.
Last Wednesday, Texas A&M seized on the disparity to hand Auburn its first home loss 81-80. With 6-11 Robert Williams and 6-10 Tyler Davis, the Aggies outrebounded the Tigers 33-22 and outscored the hosts 42-36 in the paint.
Three weeks earlier, Alabama used a similar recipe to topple the Tigers in Tuscaloosa. Avery Johnson’s team won the glass 37-35 and the paint 21-16. The Tide won 76-71. Kentucky, take note.
2. Nick Richards and PJ Washington must raise their games.
In order for the Cats to take advantage of their height, Richards and Washington have to step up.
Richards, a 6-11 freshman, has played 14 minutes or less in four of Kentucky’s last six games. He has produced one double-digit rebound game all season.
Washington grabbed eight rebounds in UK’s loss at Texas A&M, but he scored just five points. It was the fifth straight game the 6-7 freshman has failed to reach double figures. Like Richards, he has rebounded in double digits just once all year. That must change.
3. Don’t let Auburn go on a three spree.
With Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron, Auburn is the best three-point shooting team in the league, hitting 40.6 percent of its triples in conference games. Meanwhile, UK is the SEC’s best at defending the three, holding opponents to just 26.1 percent in league play.
Yet, in certain spurts, the Cats have been burned by barrage of triples. Such a spurt happened last Saturday. Up 30-26 at the half, UK watched Texas A&M score on its first seven possessions of the second half. The last three were all three-pointers. A 34-32 A&M lead mushroomed to 43-32.
Auburn can do the same. Brown, expected back from a shoulder injury, has hit a ridiculous 49.4 percent of his three-point attempts in SEC play. Harper is at 36.2 percent. Heron is at 35.2. Auburn averages 10.5 made threes per SEC game.
4. Duplicate the final five minutes at College Station.
Sparked by that initial spurt, Texas A&M destroyed Kentucky 49-12 the first 14 minutes of Saturday’s second half. With 5:56 left, the Aggies led by 23 at 75-52. Five minutes later, Kentucky had chopped the lead down to 79-71.
What changed? Energy. Execution. Desperation. The Cats played fast, forced turnovers off a full-court press, converted baskets and got to the free-throw line. Where A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said his team got tired, UK became energized.
“We have to do that 40 minutes; be more aggressive,” said UK guard Quade Green on Tuesday, and it will take nothing less in the crazy atmosphere in Auburn Arena.
5. Recreate the miracle at Morgantown.
Though it might seem like one now, UK’s 83-76 win at West Virginia, in which the Cats roared back from a 17-point, first-half deficit, wasn’t really a miracle. In a raucous environment against a ranked opponent, it was a team playing to its ability in an open-floor game.
Auburn plays that same game. Pearl loves the full-court press. He loves to get up and down the floor. And his guard-oriented team has excelled in that style. This is another chance for Kentucky to show it can excel in that type of game, as well.
Said Payne on Tuesday, “It’s an opportunity for us to steal one.”
Kentucky at Auburn
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.
TV: ESPN2 with Adam Amin, Dan Dakich, P.J. Carlesimo and Laura Rutledge
Radio: UK Networtk with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt
Kentucky-Auburn last 10 meetings