Mark Story

How Kentucky and Auburn match up — with a game prediction

Washington, Herro talk about how the Wildcats held off Houston

Kentucky's PJ Washington and Tyler Herro discuss how the team was able to hold off a comeback by Houston.
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Kentucky's PJ Washington and Tyler Herro discuss how the team was able to hold off a comeback by Houston.

How the men’s NCAA Tournament Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats (30-6) and No. 5 seed Auburn Tigers (29-9) match up at each position — with a game prediction:

Small forward

Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson (13.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) has played well against Auburn. In UK’s 82-80 win at Auburn Jan. 19, the 6-foot-6, 211-pound product of South Hill, Va., had 20 points. Johnson grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds against the Tigers in UK’s 80-53 obliteration of Auburn in Rupp Arena on Feb. 23. Johnson was 3-of-12 shooting in Kentucky’s tense 62-58 victory over Houston in the round of 16, but contributed seven rebounds and four assists.

Auburn’s Malik Dunbar (7 ppg, 3.2 rpg) has started 11 games this season — and the only one the Tigers have not won was against UK in Rupp. If you believe in the plus/minus statistic, the 6-6, 230-pound junior-college transfer is a team-best plus-56 in Auburn’s three NCAA Tournament games. The North Augusta, S.C., product had 13 points and four rebounds in the Tigers’ 97-80 demolition of North Carolina in the round of 16.

Advantage: Kentucky

Keldon Johnson
Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson (3) had 20 points in UK's first win over Auburn this season and had 17 rebounds in the Wildcats' second victory over the Tigers. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Power forward

Kentucky’s PJ Washington (team bests of 14.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) made a triumphant return against Houston after missing UK’s first two NCAA tourney games due to a sprained left foot. The 6-8, 228-pound sophomore from Dallas made six of eight shots and scored 16 points in almost 26 minutes vs. the Cougars. With the Wildcats down one point inside the final minute, Washington made a crucial blocked shot at the rim on Houston star Corey Davis.

Auburn’s Danjel Purifoy (3.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg) will probably get the start for Auburn after emerging Tigers star Chuma Okeke (12 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.9 apg) tore an ACL on Friday night. The 6-8, 230-pound Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds when he left the North Carolina win. During Auburn’s current 11-game winning streak, Okeke emerged as the Tigers’ best player. Purifoy, a 6-7, 230-pound junior, has started 25 games in his career and is talented. He made four of six three-point attempts and had 12 points vs. UNC.

Advantage: Kentucky

Chuma hurt.JPG
Auburn’s Chuma Okeke left the Tigers' 97-80 win over North Carolina on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 with what was diagnosed Saturday as a torn ACL. Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds when he departed the game. Charlie Riedel AP

Center

Kentucky’s Reid Travis (11.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) has gone full beast mode on the glass in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-8, 238-pound graduate transfer from Stanford is averaging 10.3 rpg in the Dance. In the first win over Auburn, Travis had 17 points and seven rebounds and made six of seven shots. He missed the second Auburn game with a sprained knee. The Minneapolis native is now one UK win from playing in the Final Four in his hometown.

Auburn’s Anfernee McLemore (6.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.1 blocks) had 10 points and eight rebounds vs. UK in the Tigers’ defeat in Rupp Arena. In 2017-18, McLemore played a terrific all-around game (13 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocks) to help Auburn beat Kentucky 76-66. The 6-7, 220-pound junior from Warwick, Ga., had three points (a banked-in three-point shot), four rebounds and one block in 19 minutes in the victory over UNC — yet was a team-best plus-29.

Advantage: Kentucky

Kentucky forward Reid Travis says UK’s experience in close games helped the Wildcats pull out a 62-58 win over Houston in a Midwest Regional semifinal game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Friday, March 29, 2019, in Kansas City.

Shooting guard

Kentucky’s Tyler Herro (14.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 93.5% FTs) was, well, a hero in the win over Houston. With UK down 58-57, the 6-5, 195-pound Milwaukee product drained a cold-blooded three-pointer with 25.8 seconds left to put the Cats ahead to stay. Herro then sealed the victory with two foul shots with 13 seconds left. Herro has played strong against Auburn, averaging 18.5 ppg against the Tigers.

Auburn’s Bryce Brown (team-best 15.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.9 apg) has made more career three-pointers (374) than any SEC men’s basketball player except former Tennessee star Chris Lofton (431). Brown, a 6-3, 198-pound senior from Stone Mountain, Ga., scored all 12 of his points against North Carolina in the second half. He lit up UK in this season’s first meeting, hitting eight of nine shots, six of seven treys, en route to 28 points. The Cats held Brown to six points on 2-of-7 shooting in the rematch.

Advantage: Even

Bryce Brown
Auburn guard Bryce Brown has made more career three-point shots (374) than any SEC men's basketball player in history except for ex-Tennessee star Chris Lofton (431). Albert Cesare AP

Point guard

Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans (7.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.4 apg) has been on an NCAA Tournament roller coaster. He was solid vs. Abilene Christian (four points, four rebounds, four assists); played well vs. Wofford (12 points, five rebounds, four assists); and struggled (four points, three rebounds, four turnovers) vs. Houston. The good news is that the 6-3, 192-pound freshman from Cartersville, Ga., has played well this season against Auburn. Hagans had six points, seven rebounds, and six assists in the first game; he went for 14 points and five assists in the second.

Auburn’s Jared Harper (15.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.9 apg) had nine points and 11 assists with only two turnovers in the victory over North Carolina. The 5-11, 175-pound product of Mableton, Ga., is one of five SEC players ever with career totals of more than 1,300 points (1,390), 500 assists (502) and 200 made-three-pointers (210). Harper has not shot well against Kentucky this season, 8-of-24 field goals, 4-of-11 treys.

Advantage: Auburn

Jared Harper
Auburn point guard Jared Harper is one of five SEC players all-time with career totals of more than 1,300 points (1,390), 500 assists (502) and 200 made-three-pointers (210) Jeff Roberson AP

Bench

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley (5.3 ppg) hit two crucial three-point shots in the win over Houston. The freshman point guard was a team-best plus-11 in almost 17 minutes of play vs. the Cougars. Freshman big man EJ Montgomery (3.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 37 blocked shots) had five rebounds in 13 minutes vs. Houston. Redshirt freshman guard Jemarl Baker (2.4 ppg) was a key contributor (eight points) to the round-of-32 win over Wofford.

Auburn guards Samir Doughty (7.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and J’Von McCormick (4.1 ppg) were a big part of the win over North Carolina, each scoring 10 points. Big men Austin Wiley (7.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 57.1% FGs, 27 career starts) and Horace Spencer (4.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 44 career starts) are both former starters.

Advantage: Auburn

Intangibles and history

Auburn has not lost since its defeat in Rupp Arena, having won 11 straight, including two victories over Tennessee and NCAA tourney victories over Kansas and North Carolina.

UK leads the all-time series with Auburn 94-19, including 15-2 at neutral sites. John Calipari is 11-2 vs. Auburn as Kentucky head man. Bruce Pearl is 6-14 vs. UK, 2-5 as Auburn head coach.

All-time in NCAA Tournament region finals pitting a No. 5 seed vs. a No. 2 seed, No. 5 seeds are 3-0 — Mississippi State over Cincinnati in 1996; Michigan State over Kentucky in 2005; and Butler over Kansas State in 2010.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

Kentucky 75, Auburn 70

For over 70 years, Kentucky basketball fans have shown their passion for the Blue and White during NCAA Tournament time - and sometimes created a little chaos along the way.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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