Entering SEC play, it looked as if this would be the year that Bruce Pearl would turn the Auburn Tigers around. Auburn was 10-2 and had just pulled off back to back wins over Oklahoma and UConn. It was a paper tiger, however, as Auburn has struggled in conference play and they have lost three of their four SEC games.
The Tigers have benefited from an extremely soft pre-SEC schedule as Oklahoma and UConn are uncharacteristically bad this year, as Jerry Palm assigns them an RPI of #162 and #171. The Tigers have just one win over a team that is in the top 135 of Palm's RPI, and that was a 67-65 win over #49 Texas Tech.
Granted, this is without a doubt Pearl's best team at Auburn. They are still going to be a stretch to make the NCAA Tournament, however, as Jerry Palm gives them an RPI of #89. Beating Kentucky at Rupp will help that a lot. Let's meet the Tigers.
#1 - G JARED HARPER (FR 5'10, 165) 13.5 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.4 RPG
#5 - G MUSTAPHA HERON (FR 6'5, 215) 16.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.3 APG
#23 - G TJ LANG (JR 6'7, 200) 4.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.6 APG
#3 - F DANJEL PURIFOY (FR 6'7, 230) 13.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.2 APG
#50 - C AUSTIN WILEY (FR 6'11, 255) 7.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 0.4 APG
As of this writing, it looks doubtful that Danjel Purifoy will play due to a sprained ankle. He did not make the Missouri trip. If he plays, he is a lot to handle. He can take his game outside and hits 39.1% of his three-pointers and is a solid defender with 1.5 steals a game. He had struggled in his SEC games as he was hitting just 30.1% of his shots in the three games, He does bring a lot of athleticism and explosiveness with his game. It's hard to see the Tigers hanging with Kentucky's front court if Purifoy does not play.
Jared Harper is another talented freshman that Pearl relies on. Harper was a four-star point guard and has an A/TO ratio over 2.0 and averages 1.7 steals a game. Harper takes too many bad shots from beyond the three-point line and hits just 34.5% of his treys and 41.1% over. He has been hot lately, however, with games of 24, 19, and 22 in his last five games.
Mustapha Heron is yet another talented freshman, and the former five-star shooting guard leads the team in scoring. Heron hits 41.4% of his three-pointers and is very athletic. He is a solid rebounder but is not a great ball handler. He has 44 turnovers and just 20 assists.
TJ Lang has replaced Bryce Brown in the starting lineup, and he has historically been one of Pearl's better three-point shooters, although he is struggling a bit this year. He is hitting just 34.7% on his three-pointers, and all but 6 of his shot attempts have been three-point attempts. Freshman Austin Wiley is another five-star player, and he is gradually rounding into form as he has just played seven games. He is an effective score near the rim, hitting 57.6% of his shots and is coming off a four block game against Missouri in which he played just 10 minutes. The downside of Wiley is that game is that he also picked up four fouls in that game.
#4 - G TJ DUNANS (SR 6'5, 174) 7.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.5 APG
#2 - G BRYCE BROWN (SO 6'3, 195) 6.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.8 APG
#35 - G RONNIE JOHNSON (SR 6'0, 180) 5.8 PPG, 1.9 APG, 1.5 RPG
#0 - F HORACE SPENCER (SO 6'8, 220) 5.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.5 APG
#12 - F LARON SMITH (SR, 6'8, 215) 3.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.3 APG)
#24 - F ANFERNEE MCLEMORE (FR 6'7, 210) 3.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.1 APG
If Purifoy can not go, it looks as if fellow freshman Anfernee McLemore may get the call. McLemore was a four-star commit and is hitting 65.7% of his shots. He got the start against Missouri but played just 14 minutes and had four fouls and did not take a shot in the game.
TJ Dunans provides leadership off the bench even though he does not start anymore. He has struggled with his shooting this season and hits just 21.2% of his three-pointers and 37.8% overall. His senior leadership will be needed in Rupp Arena, however. Ronnie Johnson is another player forced to the bench in favor of the freshmen. He is a solid passer and rarely turns the ball over, but his three-point shooting percentage has dipped to 28%.
Bryce Brown has been really struggling with his shot, which led to his benching. He hits just 28.8% of his three-pointers, down from 37% last year and just 29.9% overall. He has improved defensively and averages 1.2 steals a game. Horace Spencer adds toughness, defense and rebounding to the front court. He hits 58.3% of his shots and 1.5 blocks in just 16.8 minutes a game. He does rack up 3.4 fouls in that time as well. LaRon Smith is on his third school in four years and is a solid interior defender with 1.3 blocks a game.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
In a way, there are a few similarities in Kentucky and Auburn. Both are deep teams and both rely on Freshmen. Both teams are pretty average at three-point shooting with Auburn hitting 34.2% and Kentucky 34.2%. Both teams live in the below 70% neighborhood of free throw shooting. Both teams play pretty good defense.
Due to the fast paced nature of the games, both Kentucky and Auburn give up more points than they should, but the defensive numbers are not bad. Auburn allows opposing teams to hit just 41.1% of their shots as compared to Kentucky's 40.3%. Same goes for three-point defense as Auburn allows 31.6% to Kentucky's 29.5%. This will not be a defensive minded game, though. Both teams like to run and press the tempo. Kentucky averages 93.8 points and the Tigers 79.2. If Bruce Pearl makes the mistake of thinking his team can run with Kentucky, this will be over early.
That is where the similarities end. Kentucky is a much better offensive machine that is clicking on all cylinders right now. The Wildcats shoot 49.1% overall to the Tigers 42.3% And while the three-point shooting numbers are similar, the Tigers have heaved 74 more attempts up than Kentucky. In addition, Auburn has problems taking care of the ball. They come into the game with an A/TO ratio of slightly under 1.0, while Kentucky has a 1.7 ratio. Kentucky is much better on the boards than the Tigers as Kentucky out-rebounds their opponents by 5.4 boards while the Tigers lose the rebounding battle by 2.7 a game.
All of these stat disparities point to a rather easy Kentucky win. Throw in the fact Kentucky has these numbers against the #12 toughest schedule so far (per Jerry Palm), and the Tigers have the #110 best. Throw in the fact that one of Auburn's best players in Purifoy may not play or will be limited, and you have the makings of a true blowout.
The Tigers have talent and have been a decent road team this year. None of what they have seen so far will prepare them for the #6 Wildcats and Rupp Arena. Even if Purifoy can go, the Wildcats should roll.
Let's call it 95-78.