UK Men's Basketball

TV deal shrinks Auburn's prep time for Cats

Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo on his team's David-and-Goliath game against Kentucky on Saturday: "Kentucky has at least five NBA players, maybe a sixth. They kind of remind me of the old Kentucky teams when I was at South Carolina (as an Eddie Fogler assistant) and (Rick) Pitino was at Kentucky. Five, six, seven NBA guys.

"Kind of scary to sit here and try to prepare for them."

As if that was not difficult enough, the Southeastern Conference schedule makers and ESPN limited the size and/or hardness of the rock Auburn can put in its slingshot.

Because Auburn played at Tennessee on Thursday night as part of the league's ESPN package, Kentucky has the advantage of two extra days to prepare. UK last played on Tuesday, winning at Florida to move Coach John Calipari within one of Adolph Rupp's national record of 64 straight conference victories.

Auburn returned home late Thursday night and had one day to prepare for the No. 2 team in the country.

"The biggest thing in the one day is, with the extra day there is understanding personnel or what guys do well or what guys don't," Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo said. "Whether you're a driver or a shooter, and getting that across to your kids. ...

"From a scouting standpoint, at least when I was a player, having an extra day just to be able to study the individual tendencies of the people that I was going to cover or play against was beneficial."

Not that Lebo was complaining. It's the deal the SEC made with the devil (its television masters): greater exposure to help recruiting at the cost of awkward Thursday-Saturday games within 48 or fewer hours.

After noting SEC Commissioner Mike Slive made sure the coaches understood the bargain, Lebo said, "He didn't really want to hear the complaining from coaches. So I'm not going to sit here and complain to you. All right?"

Auburn has other concerns, as one telling statistic suggests: Its eight victories against Division I competition this season have come against opponents with an average Ratings Percentage Index of 229.

Lebo noted Auburn's best defensive team has trouble scoring. Its five best scorers are too small to consistently defend.

"I wish it were like hockey where you can sub on the fly, but you can't," the Auburn coach quipped earlier in the week. "That's what hurts us more than anything. When we play our best offensive group, our best scorers, we are 6-foot really, 6-1, 6-2 at one, two three. So we don't really have a great presence there defensively with size and length."

Auburn ranks 11th among 12 SEC teams in opponents' three-point accuracy (37.1 percent). No league team has surrendered more three-point baskets than Auburn's 133.

"We may be right where we need to be," Lebo said of the perimeter defense, "but we're not big and long on the perimeter."

At the offensive end, no SEC team has taken more three-point shots than Auburn's 427. Only Mississippi State and Mississippi have made more than Auburn's 136.

Calipari noted how opponents seem to play their best against the Cats.

"Every team I see on tape, I get scared," he said. "Because whatever you see on tape, you're going to take it up two notches."

Calipari estimated Auburn would take 30 to 35 three-pointers. "If they make 20, it's been a nice start to our season," he said, meaning Kentucky would lose. "They're going to shoot them. It's not like we're going to stop them from shooting."

Lebo lamented his team's inconsistency in shooting three-pointers. For instance, Auburn made 10 in the first half at Tennessee, a bonanza that translated into a double-digit lead for much of the opening 20 minutes. Then Auburn made only one in the second half and lost 81-55.

"If we can get all of our guys shooting it one night, I think, is key," Lebo said.

Auburn's lack of size translates into concerns around the basket. Tennessee got 48 points in the paint.

"I think we can really take advantage of that," UK wing Darius Miller said. "We have great big men. They do a lot of scoring and rebounding. We have great big men who can dominate games. So I think we'll get them the ball a lot."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader