Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats travel down to the home of last year's BCS champion to take on the Auburn Tigers in their brand-new Auburn Arena, a 9,121 seat arena that just opened in 2010. This will be the Wildcats' first visit to the new facility.
Auburn is one of the weaker teams in the SEC this year as Tony Barbee works to rebuild the Tigers from years of neglect during the Jeff Lebo years and before. Auburn is not the most attractive place in the SEC for basketball talent, but Alabama has a ton of great basketball statewide, and there are plenty of players from there and nearby states for Auburn to draw upon. Barbee has upped the level of recruiting since he left the UTEP Miners program to take the Auburn job in 2010.
Of course, everyone knows by now that Tony Barbee is a former player for John Calipari at UMass, as well as an assistant to Coach Cal at Memphis until 2006, when he took the UTEP job. Barbee is known as an excellent recruiter, but isn't really a disciple of the Dribble Drive Motion, since that was actually implemented about the time Barbee left Memphis.
This season, Auburn has brought in three new recruits that are a cut above recent efforts in center Willy Kouassi, Cedrick McAffee and Bernard Morena. Kouassi is seeing significant playing time, and McAffee is seeing some, but it looks like Morena will redshirt this season.
Auburn strengths vs. UK:
- Decent defensive rebounding team
- Good shot blocking % team (6th in the nation)
- Solid defensive club
- Will attack Kentucky inside and out
- Home court
Auburn weaknesses vs. UK:
- 3-guard lineup makes them small on the wings
- Struggles to get offensive rebounds
- Poor free throw shooting
- Weak offensive team against a very strong defense
- Average 3-point defenders
Kentucky strengths vs. Auburn:
- Size on the wings
- Superior talent at every position
- Strong 3-point shooting
- Strong offensive rebounding against weak defensive rebounding
- Auburn is scoring-challenged, and UK is among the strongest defenses in Division I
Kentucky weaknesses vs. Auburn:
- Home court
- Depth at the center position
The big question in this game is how will UK's freshmen respond to their first road game in the SEC. Of all the places UK could have picked to start their conference road schedule, this is probably the best possible place. Auburn is a football school and has very little basketball support despite having had some good teams in the past. You can tell by the size of Auburn's brand-new gym, which is virtually the same size as Memorial Coliseum where the Kentucky Hoops squad plays. The crowd is likely to be small, and disinterested.
With that said, Tony Barbee is a formidable coach in his own right and is working hard to build this program up. He got some pieces in this year, and he has a few more coming next year plus some capable players redshirting. The future looks brighter for Auburn basketball, but it is likely to be a slow and painstaking process to build this team back up to a a competitor in the SEC considering how little support the team gets.
Still Auburn has some very good players. Frankie Sullivan was injured last year, but he is back and playing well. He is still somewhat below his healthy output in 2009-10, but not by much. Kenny Gabriel is the lone senior starter (Auburn only has three), so they are a very young team.
I would look for Kentucky to try to force the action down low and get some easy shots up early. Both teams work at about the same pace, but the Tigers have not played anybody even close to Kentucky's caliber all year, and every team of any quality they have played has handled them convincingly. The Tigers only managed 35 points for the entire game in their recent road trip to face the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, and Kentucky's defense is an order of magnitude better than Vandy's.
This is a tough spot for Auburn, even in their home gym. But road games are where the unlikely happens (just ask the Louisville Cardinals), so you never know.
Be sure and check out Track 'em Tigers, the fine SB Nation Auburn blog, for the Tigers' side.