Tonight at 8:00 in Rupp Arena, it's the Wildcats vs. the Tigers. Sounds like a mismatch favoring the Tigers when you put it that way, but these Tigers are rather smaller than the Bengal variety we see down at LSU. Heck, these Tigers aren't even as big as Wildcats.
Jeff Lebo brings his 11-5 (1-0) Auburn team into Rupp with a 1-game winning streak on the line ["Streak?" ed.]. Auburn is just coming off a big win at home against Vanderbilt, a game in which both teams shot lights out from three, but in which neither team made more than 45% of their baskets overall. Kentucky (12-3 [1-0]) is four days removed from a solid road win against a better than advertised Ole Miss team, and looks to make it two SEC games in a row.
Auburn by the numbers
In terms of personnel, Auburn is another one of those undersized teams who likes to play at a very fast pace, something UK aught to be familiar with after Houston. Auburn is lead by front-court returnees Korvotney Barber and Josh Dollard. You may remember Barber, who was heavily recruited by UK last year, but decided to stay nearer to home and play for Lebo. Barber (6'7"/225#/13p/7reb) is a banger and a shot blocker with excellent rebounding skills but no perimeter game to speak of. Dollard (6'7"/225#/12p/8reb) is an inside-out threat who can put it on the floor and shoots the 3 at a 30% clip.
Since Auburn plays no true center, they employ a 3-guard lineup. Quantez Robertson (6'3"/190#/8p/5asst) is the point, a solid performer and ball handler who can penetrate and dish, but is a so-so 3-point shooter at 30%. One of his backcourt mates is Frank Tolbert (6'4"/210#/12p/6reb) who is a reliable 3-point shooter at 38% and solid on-the ball defender. The final guard in the threesome is likely to be Rasheem Barrett (6'5"/220#/13p/5reb), the team's second leading scorer. Barrett is a sophomore who can score the basketball inside and out, and will be putting up most of the Tigers' shot attempts.
Seeing double-digit minutes off the bench, the Tigers bring Furman transfer Quan Prowell, and true freshman Lucas Hargrove at forward as well as Dewayne Reed and JuCo transfer Archie Miaway. Prowell is an inside-out threat and Reed brings almost 4 assists/game to the table.
Teamwise, Auburn likes to play fast. They play the 55th fastest tempo in Division 1, while UK clocks in at 139th. Auburn is not particularly efficient offensively, ranking 165th versus Kentucky's 47th. Auburn is 13th in 2-point FG% (56%) vs. 48th(54%) for UK. 40% of Auburn's shots come from 3-point range, against only 32% for UK. Auburn gets offensive rebounds at a 33% clip, about the same as UK. Korvotney Barber is in the top 100 in the nation at getting to the line per minute played, by far the best on either team.
The offensive strategy for Auburn will be to use their quickness inside with Barber and Dollard. They also love to drive and dish to 3-point shooters, something that Houston did with ease against the Wildcats' guards. Getting the ball to Barber and Dollard will be a priority, but Auburn is not afraid to shoot three-point shots if that proves too tough.
Defensively, the Tigers are not bad. At a 63rd in defensive efficiency versus UK's 24th, the Tigers are one of the better defensive teams we have faced. Auburn does turn the ball over, however, averaging over 17/game, worse than even UK's anemic 15+/game. Auburn and UK both average about 5 blocked shots per game, but Auburn gets 3 more steals on average. Adjusted for tempo, Auburn is 57th in the nation in steals. Dewayne Reed is in the top 50 in the nation in steals percentage -- UK doesn't have anyone in the top 100.
Auburn plays a lot of zone defense, which should help us out (Heaven knows we need it) on the defensive glass. Jeff Lebo also plays a good number of people, and loves to trap in the halfcourt. Auburn forced Pitt into 18 turnovers in their 74-66 loss to them earlier this season.
What it all means
Auburn is an athletic, quick team and these kinds of teams tend to give Kentucky trouble. Kentucky must guard the perimeter, but Barber is a legitimate low-post threat and Dollard can score inside as well. Morris must avoid picking up fouls, as usual, and it will be pretty challenging against these guys. Auburn does not shoot the ball particularly well from three, but they shoot it a lot from there, and if they get hot it will spell trouble for UK. Jeff Lebo plays a lot of players but doesn't have a lot of quality depth, so Kentucky has the advantage there.
Auburn's half-court trap could give us trouble. Houston pressured us into some turnovers and ragged play with their trapping defense, and we will get more of the same from Auburn. Kentucky's strategy, as usual, will revolve around getting Morris the ball, but since Auburn is going to zone a lot, our perimeter shooting must be ready. Kentucky has shown some skill at finding gaps in the zone, and our guards must do so again tonight, rather than jacking up the always-available open three we will get from the Tigers.
Bottom line -- in Rupp arena, Auburn represents a threat very similar to Houston. If anything, the Tigers are a bit less athletic than Houston, but they do have a much more talented frontcourt. Defending Morris will be the big task for the Tigers, but the zone will make it a little harder for UK to get him involved. If we continue to get big numbers out of Crawford and continued solid play at the other backcourt positions, we should be fine. It would really help of Perry or Stevenson decided to step up an take charge of 4 position, but we should be able to get by against this team with steady play and good rebounding from that spot.