This was one of those games that could have gotten out of hand, and very nearly did. Thankfully, it is over with no serious damage to either side, although the Auburn Tigers wound up getting a player (Jordan Granger) ejected for taking a swing at Archie Goodwin, and he'll suffer a one-game suspension for that infraction. Even after that, the game didn't so much resemble basketball as a wrestling match.
I really don't understand the officiating in college these days. The officials have become very foul-averse, allowing far too much rough, physical play that is becoming a major problem. Just today, there were at least two players ejected in SEC games that I saw for what looked like swinging at other players, and Goodwin came within an inch of getting himself the heave-ho by placing his nose one inch from Granger's with his fists balled up for action.
This game was an offense to the sport of basketball, and the officials are almost exclusively to blame. They let the game get rough early, and by the time they tried to get control of it, it had gone past the point of no return. I know this is an unusual rant for a post-game review, but I am sick and tired of the way this sport is being officiated. Something has got to give. Okay, enough. We now return to your regularly scheduled postmortem.
I would be the last to blame Auburn for trying to rough up Kentucky -- the Wildcats brought it on themselves. Kentucky has been soft all year, and that is an engraved invitation for older, tougher teams to try to overcome the talent deficit they know they face, especially in Rupp Arena, by pushing and shoving as much as they can get away with. Auburn played hard, and while I may not appreciate the style of play they used, they played to win. This was about the only real advantage they had, and they used it.
Kentucky, to their credit, held up pretty well against the physicality of Auburn. They didn't exactly give as good as they got, but as the game wore on, they got better at fighting through it and finishing plays. While I don't like this kind of "basketball," I do understand that nobody cares that I think basketball should not involve wrestling. But if wrestling is what is necessary, then get in there and wrestle. Kentucky did more of that than I would have expected.
I also want to point out that Tony Barbee did a very classy thing by taking his frustrated senior, Frankie Sullivan, out of the game for good after that intentional foul on Kyle Wiltjer. Sullivan has spent four years losing to Kentucky, and he is a competitor and wanted a victory. I could see that. The trouble was, he was just a little too willing to do whatever it took, and Barbee sensed his senior was not going to let a little thing like fouls get in his way. It's possible Barbee was just looking to make sure Sullivan was available for more winnable games, and not suspended. If so, that makes him smart as well as classy.
- Nerlens Noel had yet another double-double, although he wasn't a factor at all on offense. He was double-teamed every time he touched the ball, and the double-teams were very effective. Despite that, Noel did what he could, and he could do plenty. 10 points on 1-2 shooting, 8-13 from the line for 61% (very good for Noel) 12 rebounds (4 offensive), 1 block, 1 steal, 1 assist and 2 turnovers. Game ball.
- Alex Poythress had good moments and bad moments. He was, as usual, very efficient, but he had some defensive breakdowns and drifted at times, and didn't rebound well. Still, he drifts less and defends better, and that's what it's all about -- that, and the ridiculous behind-the-back assist to Willie Cauley-Stein. 8 points on 3 of 5 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 turnovers.
- Julius Mays was not as good as he has been, but you can tell Calipari trusts him because he saw more minutes than anyone, including Noel. 10 points on 2-8 shooting, a perfect 4-4 from the line, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and no turnovers.
- Ryan Harrow didn't play badly, he just keeps making the kind of mistakes that leave us shaking our collective head. On one play, there was a loose ball in Harrow's area, and he made no move to get it until after the Auburn player already had his hands on it. Harrow drifts in and out of games sometimes. Calipari pulled him repeatedly for poor defense. 12 points on 3-6 shooting, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block
- Archie Goodwin just wasn't much good tonight offensively, and he was only occasionally okay defensively. He made one spectacular defensive play blocking a shot in transition, but he lost his man several times, gave up open looks from three and twice dogged it in transition after missing a shot. He also got into foul trouble after the altercation with Granger cost him a personal and a technical foul giving him three. He picked up his fourth a few minutes into the second half and played a season-low 17 minutes. 3 points on 1-6 shooting, 1-4 from the line, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block and 2 turnovers.
- Jarrod Polson was great. His stats do not show the toughness and determination he played with on both ends of the floor. I can't really say enough about his effort, and considered him for the game ball just because of all the guys on the floor save Wiltjer he is far and away the least athletically gifted, but has it where it really counts -- in the left center of his chest. 3 points on 1-3 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 turnover.
- Kyle Wiltjer played okay, he didn't play great. Auburn's double-teams in the post really made it hard for him to score there, and for whatever reason he turned down a number of what seemed to me like good open looks from three. He didn't rebound very well, either. 14 points on 4-11 shooting, 2-6 from the arc, 4-4 from the line, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers.
- Willie Cauley-Stein seems to have a similar line every game. He just goes out there and gives you energy, runs the floor, catches lobs, and does all kinds of good, energy-type things. In my view, WCS is the perfect bench player, much like Darius Miller was last year but in a different way. 12 points on 5-5 shooting, 2-5 from the line, 4 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 assist and 3 turnovers.
- Kentucky seemed to play this game consistently okay. They really didn't have long stretches without field goals, but neither were they particularly efficient.
- Defensively, I thought this wasn't a great game for UK. They gave up too many open looks to dangerous shooters, they hung their heads in transition a few times, and they lost their man far too often.
- I liked the toughness this team showed tonight in the face of a rugged Auburn team that was going out of its way to push Kentucky around. UK didn't exactly "punch back twice as hard," but they did get in the trenches and mix it up more than they have been. Are we seeing some toughness? Yes. Are we seeing it from everybody? No.
- Kentucky wasn't impressive on the offensive glass tonight, but fortunately, neither was Auburn.
- Free throw shooting was much better. When you get to the line as often as Kentucky did and make enough, it's a very efficient way to score. UK's eFG% wasn't great at 50%, same as Auburn's, but they made 26 free throws to Auburn's 11. Nerlens Noel was especially impressive.
- I thought the team competed tonight on most possessions. That's good to see.
- Auburn hoped to catch UK looking past them to Florida, but there is no doubt at all they didn't do that.
Next up, it's the Florida Gators in Gainesville. We'll find out in that one exactly how far this team has come. Ken Pomeroy gives Kentucky only an 8% chance of winning that game, and I don't love our chances, either, although I personally would estimate them higher than that. This team has some stuff that Florida hasn't seen this year. Maybe it will be enough.