Auburn had just lost its third straight game, and fifth in the last six. The three most recent losses came by an average of 15 points.
Yet, Cinmeon Bowers spoke confidently about winning the next game. It made no difference that the Tigers’ next opponent was ranked in the top 25 and that Auburn hadn’t beaten a ranked team in almost four years.
“I really believe we’re going to beat them,” he said. “Everybody is fired up.”
That the next opponent was Kentucky speaks volumes about UK’s perceived vulnerability this season. As UK Coach John Calipari said after the loss to Ohio State a month ago, future opponents smelled blood.
Apparently, Bowers picked up the scent and breathed deeply.
“We’re confident about Kentucky now,” he said after Auburn lost 75-57 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 12. “This ain’t last year. This isn’t the same Kentucky. They’re beatable.”
Then, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported, Bowers added, “If we play with energy, play smart and finish on the offensive end, then we can beat this Kentucky. We know that.”
Auburn did just that, rallying from a 12-point second-half deficit for a 75-70 victory. That was the deepest hole the Tigers found themselves in before winning a game this season. So maybe this belief about beating Kentucky came in handy.
What Bowers said was not all that different from Calipari has said again and again this season. UK is not the dominant team of last season. So, the Cats must play in a desperate way to stay close and give themselves a chance to win. Every game in the Southeastern Conference, Calipari said, will have a single-digit margin in the final minutes.
After Auburn defeated Kentucky, Bruce Pearl tried to smooth over Bowers’ comments. “Kids do the darndest things,” the Auburn coach said.
Bowers, a 6-foot-7 senior, became the latest in a long line of observers to question Kentucky’s presence around the basket.
“They’re not like … last year,” he said. “You couldn’t really attack them because they were blocking every shot. We need to attack them.”
Perhaps on much less sturdy ground, Bowers also said Auburn’s guards were better than Kentucky’s.
Pearl asked reporters to keep in mind that college players are still teenagers or barely in their 20s.
“Occasionally, a young man, when the cameras aren’t there, is going to say something to you,” Pearl said to an audience of reporters in the postgame news conference. “You can walk away and say, ‘That is going to be front page.’ Or you could do what you guys do and knowing he probably shouldn’t have said that, and say, ‘I’m going to hold on to that one for a while.’”
For what it’s worth, Pearl did not say Bowers’ assessment of Kentucky was wrong.
The Auburn coach acknowledged that Kentucky lacks the same dominating presence around the basket as last season.
“This year it’s not as dominant,” Pearl said of UK’s front line. “It’s very athletic. It’s very capable. Just not as night-in, night-out as dominant.
“There are going to be certain matchups on certain nights where Kentucky is not going to physically overwhelm you. I thought last year Kentucky was the most physical offensive team I had played against in my career as a coach.”
Add an enthusiastic home crowd and the intoxicating thought of beating Kentucky, and you have a recipe for victory.
Pearl cautioned against the impulse to dismiss the Cats.
“Kentucky has so many young players,” he said. “And they are going to compete for a league championship. There is no question about that. They played hard. Our play was just elevated tonight.”
On a teleconference Monday, several SEC coaches put Kentucky’s season to date in perspective. Their comments echoed something ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said in the preseason: UK returned to Earth after the historic high of last season.
“(Kentucky is) a little bit like the rest of us in that they’re searching for all of the right guys at the right times to do the right things,” said Kevin Stallings, whose Vanderbilt team plays at UK Saturday. “Kind of the same thing we’ve been after, and probably a number of other teams in our league.”
LSU Coach Johnny Jones pointed out Kentucky’s dependence on freshmen and holdover players being asked to play leading roles for the first time.
“Those guys have to go through some growing pains,” Jones said. “And sometimes people don’t expect it because they have Kentucky across their chests.”
Kentucky at Arkansas
7 p.m. (ESPN)