Kentucky knows defending three-pointer will be key against Auburn
The next-to-last thing Kentucky wants at Auburn on Saturday is a three-for-all. Why? Because trying to make more three-pointers than Auburn probably will lead to the last thing Kentucky wants: a loss.
“No threes in practice is really what’s been going on,” Tyler Herro said of the preparation for the game. “If you give up a catch-and-shoot three, you run.”
When asked Friday about the importance of three-point defense, UK Coach John Calipari began his answer with an exhale.
“Whew,” he said. “Let’s say this: They’re going to shoot 35 of them. And if you really guard them, you really guard the three, they’re going to shoot 35 of them.
“And they do it off the bounce. They do it off the catch. They do it in transition. They do it in pick-and-roll.”
Led by the backcourt tandem of shooting guard Bryce Brown and point guard Jared Harper, Auburn ranks fifth nationally with an average of 10.9 three-point baskets per game. That average rose to 13 per game against Southeastern Conference teams. Auburn averages 30.5 three-point shots (32.7 in its first three SEC games).
Former Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who does commentary on radio broadcasts, began his analysis of the team with its three-point shooting.
“When they’re making threes, they are very good,” Smith said Friday. “It lifts up the rest of their game. It makes them play together. It makes them better on defense. And they are — at times when they are making threes — a complete team because they defend extremely hard.”
Brown, who is Auburn’s career leader in three-point baskets, has averaged five per game and shot with 44.1-percent accuracy in SEC play.
Harper has averaged two three-pointers per game. As Smith saw it, Harper specializes in quality rather than quantity.
“He’s the kind of guy who takes big shots and makes them. …,” he said. “They’ll get behind because they’re missing everything. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he’ll make big baskets.”
Here’s a statistic to ponder: Auburn has made 10 or more threes in 10 of its 16 games. In the “off nights when the Tigers made less than 10, they averaged 6.5 threes. Kentucky is averaging 6.0 three-point baskets overall and 4.8 in SEC play.
In its three losses (to Duke, N.C. State and Ole Miss), Auburn made only 30 of 96 three-point shots (31.2 percent).
Kentucky has struggled in limiting the opposition’s three-point baskets, especially early this season.
“We work on it every day,” Herro said. “Just not leaving corners and allowing wide-open corner threes. Having a hand up early on close-outs. Just being there early is going to be key tomorrow.”
It would seem the attention to this detail is paying dividends. UK’s last two opponents, Vanderbilt and Georgia, made only 11 of 52 three-point shots.
But Calipari declined the invitation to take a bow. When it was suggested that Kentucky’s three-point defense had improved lately, he said, “Yeah. Then the team (Georgia) dunks the first five shots. We really guarded the three, and they dunked every ball on us.
“This is a work in progress. It really is.”
Smith said that Auburn’s three-point defense has not been consistently stout. The Tigers ranked 227th in three-point defense. Opponents have made 34.9 percent of their three-point shots.
Smith suggested that maybe being relatively undersized is a factor. Austin Wiley, a 6-foot-11 junior, is the only regular taller than 6-8.
But look out if Auburn’s “bigs” have an impact. “If their inside presence is playing and combined with their three-point shooting, they’re very hard to beat,” Smith said.
Auburn compensates, in part, by scrambling the game, forcing turnovers (19.9 per game for the opponent). The Tigers average 26.3 points off turnovers.
And all those three-point shots take opponents away from their rebounding habits. “Long rebounds matter in this game,” Calipari said.
With Kentucky ranked 319th in three-point baskets (6.0 per game), Calipari made it clear he does not want his team caught up in a long-range shooting duel.
“I like to press a pressing team,” he said. “I like to drive a driving team. I’m not as apt to shoot the three with a three-point shooting team. We don’t play that way.”
And Kentucky would like to limit, if not prevent, Auburn from playing that way.
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn
When: 4 p.m.
Records: UK 13-3 (3-1 SEC); Auburn 13-3 (2-1 SEC)
Series: UK leads 92-19
Last meeting: Auburn won 76-66 on Feb. 14, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.
Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1, WLAP-AM 630