John Clay

For Kentucky basketball, it’s one down and two to go

Bruce Pearl: Kentucky is better than last year

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl talks about Kentucky after his Tigers lost 82-80 to the Wildcats on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at Auburn Arena. Ranked 12th, UK improved to 4-1 in the SEC. Ranked 14th, Auburn dropped to 2-2.
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Auburn coach Bruce Pearl talks about Kentucky after his Tigers lost 82-80 to the Wildcats on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at Auburn Arena. Ranked 12th, UK improved to 4-1 in the SEC. Ranked 14th, Auburn dropped to 2-2.

Just recently this space made the argument that the stretch of three games, starting at Auburn on Saturday, would act as a barometer for this Kentucky basketball team.

John Calipari wasn’t buying it.

Fielding a similar inquiry during his Friday meeting with the media, the Kentucky coach asked if anyone knew the date. After hearing confirmation that it was in fact still January, Cal said, “We’re good.”

By early evening Saturday in the loveliest village on the plains, Kentucky was even better. After host Auburn rallied from a 17-point deficit to lead Cal’s Cats by a point with less than a minute remaining, 12th-ranked Kentucky found a way to hold on for a significant 82-80 SEC road victory.

“We may be playing better on the road than we are at home,” proclaimed Calipari afterward.

Now the Cats return home for the remaining tasks of this toughness test against three consecutive ranked teams. Mississippi State visits Rupp Arena on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. start. Kansas arrives on Saturday for a 6 p.m. renewal of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Both games are on ESPN.

After stumbling out of the SEC gate 0-2, No. 24 MSU has won two straight, including a 71-55 thumping of hapless Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday. Quinndary “Jack of All Trades” Weatherspoon scored 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished four assists. Owensboro’s own Aric Holman scored 10 points and grabbed nine boards. Vandy shot just 36.7 percent.

Meanwhile, No. 7 Kansas took it on the chin at West Virginia, losing 65-64. Life without star center Udoka Azubuike is not so easy. Azubuike is out for the season with a torn ligament in his hand. Bill Self is forced to make do with his remaining collection of five stars. It’s an adjustment. Before Saturday, WVU was 0-5 in the Big 12.

Back to the Cats. There are a couple of reasons to rain on Saturday’s celebration. Auburn was also without its starting center. Shortly before the game came the announcement 6-foot-10 junior Austin Wiley would miss the next two weeks with a lower leg injury. Then during the game there was that little matter of Calipari’s club losing that 17-point lead.

Let neither of those alternative facts downgrade the impressive nature of the “W,” however. Auburn Arena is a tough place to play. On the occasion of its last two visits, Kentucky had left with losses. To understand the noisy, confined atmosphere, you had to be there. That’s especially true when Pearl is busy pumping up the crowd.

Plus, Auburn is good. That’s with or without Wiley, who’s averaging 10 points and six boards per game. Shooting guard Bryce Brown got it going in the second half Saturday and finished with a game-high 28 points. Plenty say Jared Harper is the league’s best point guard.

And Kentucky survived. Keldon Johnson went from zero to hero. Held scoreless in the Cats’ win at Georgia last week, Johnson bounced back with 20 points Saturday. Tyler Herro also tallied 20. And it was Herro who stepped to the line with 24 seconds remaining, UK down a point, and calmly buried two free throws.

“I think they shot over top of our guards,” Pearl said of Johnson and Herro. “We weren’t able to put enough pressure, extend them enough.”

That is known as playing to your strength. UK owned that advantage — “They were bigger and more physical at every position,” Pearl lamented — and exploited it. On the road. Against a ranked team. In a big conference game. First test passed.

Now comes another difficult conference game. “We have every good team in the league twice, so we’ll enjoy this and then figure out what we’re doing next,” said Calipari.

That’s not totally true, but Mississippi State is tough enough. Known more for his defensive acumen, Ben Howland has a team that can score. Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency numbers rank MSU No. 20 on offense. Like Saturday, Tuesday should be tough. And fun.

Next game

No. 24 Mississippi State at No. 12 Kentucky

7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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