Kentucky Wildcats (13-3) at Auburn Tigers (13-3)
Location: Auburn Arena in Auburn Alabama
Game Time: 4 pm EST on January 19, 2019
TV Channel: ESPN
Announcers: Bob Wischusen, Dick Vitale and Allison Williams will be on the call.
Radio: Tom Leach and Tony Delk will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington or online at UKAthletics.com.
Replay: Check local listings on the the SEC Network and WatchESPN.
Odds: KenPom projected Kentucky to be a 4.5-point underdog. Surely enough, that was the official spread released on Friday, though it dipped to 4 on Saturday. Check out the betting trends and other analysis for the game.
Predictions: Kentucky has just a 31.5% chance to win, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor. KenPom gives Kentucky an 35% chance of winning. Check out our roundtable predictions on the game.
After arguably one of the best performances of the season down in Athens, the No. 12 Wildcats travel to play No. 14 Auburn on Saturday.
Bruce Pearl, who is now in his fifth season, has done a fantastic job building the program into what it is today. The Tigers have a season record of 13-3 and are 2-1 in conference play after beating Texas A&M on the road Wednesday night.
Their lone SEC loss was against Ole Miss on January 9th, where they were handled by 15 points. Earlier in the season, Auburn proved that it can compete at a high level when they took Duke the distance in the Maui Invitational before losing by only 6 points. This game will provide Kentucky one of their best remaining opportunities on the schedule for a big win on the road.
The Cats’ resume will get even stronger if they can win on Saturday and boast victories against North Carolina, Louisville, and Auburn before the halfway mark in the season.
This will also be a good test for UK ahead of the Kansas Jayhawks, who come to Rupp Arena next week for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. But Coach Calipari and his team will first have to worry about slowing down an Auburn team that has tremendous depth and is averaging an impressive 85 points per game. They’ve also scored 90+ points in three-straight games.
The Big Blue Nation seems to be completely back on the hype train after demolishing the Georgia Bulldogs by 20 points in Athens on Tuesday. The obvious takeaway was the continued emergence of freshman point guard Ashton Hagans, who poured in 23 points. His four steals also secured him a University of Kentucky record as he became the first player with 3+ steals in six-straight games.
Rex Chapman has publicly stated that he thinks Hagans can become the best perimeter defender in this history of the program. That seemed like a stretch at the time, but now it is sinking in that Hagans really might be that special.
There will be no time to bask in the dominating performance against the Bulldogs, as Hagans will have another tough matchup on Saturday when he plays against former first-team All-SEC guard Bryce Brown, who has made over 50 three-pointers this season and is averaging over 15 points per game.
3 Keys to the Game
Kentucky is now making it an alarming trend to start games in poor fashion. Tuesday night, the Georgia Bulldogs opened the game with five-straight slam dunks. You would be hard pressed to find another time where that has happened.
Luckily, the poor start did not have any lingering impacts on the outcome of the contest, but it is without a doubt something that needs to change if Kentucky is going to win the conference.
The Cats have yet to start an SEC game with the type of energy and execution that Coach Calipari would like to see. How do they change it? Many have suggested that a tweak to the starting line-up is overdue.
If Coach Cal is to make a change, which I believe is likely, the most logical move would be to replace Reid Travis with Nick Richards. Richards, who started the majority of games a season ago, has finally started to come on as of late, including playing some tremendous minutes down in Athens.
It is evident that Kentucky is the best version of themselves when Nick Richards is acting as a rim protector. I would like to believe that the Bulldogs would not have started the game with that many dunks had Richards been in the paint.
Getting off to a quick start will be even more important on the road. The Cats absolutely cannot afford to be down 8-10 points at the under 16-minute timeout against a ranked Auburn team.
Protect the three-point line
The Cats have done a much better job preventing opponents from torching them from deep. But old habits die hard, so it will be critical that Kentucky does not revert back to the poor perimeter defense they displayed just a few weeks ago.
In the last two games, UK has held opponents to 11/52 from behind the arc, which is an incredible improvement from the beginning of the season. The Tigers shoot a ridiculous amount of threes, almost 500 on the season. In comparison, Kentucky has only taken 277.
Bryce Brown and Jared Harper take the majority of the long-distance shots for Bruce Pearl’s team. Both are hovering around the 40% mark. Containing the Auburn from behind the arc may be the biggest storyline of the game.
Establish Reid Travis
It’s no secret that Reid Travis has struggled since the start of SEC play. Getting him on track in Saturday’s game is not nearly as important as it will be 6 weeks from now. But it would be encouraging to see a big game from Travis. It has been suggested that the length of SEC defenders is troubling the grad transfer and his limited athleticism is working against him. I believe there is some truth in that, but also am confident that Reid Travis will figure it out sooner than later.
Early in the season, it seemed as if Travis nearing a double-double would be automatic every game. Now that it has been proven otherwise, I think a big key moving forward will be to establish his presence. Auburn has some big bodies in Austin Wiley and Chuma Okeke, so the Cats will need all they can get from the front court. If he remains in his starting role, I expect the ball to get thrown into Reid Travis on the first few possessions of the game.
Players to watch
Bryce Brown: 15.8 ppg, 37.2% three-point shooter
Brown, a senior guard from Stone Mountain, Georgia, is the straw that stirs the drink for the Auburn Tigers. He had a season-high of 34 points against Dayton earlier this year. Of course, Ashton Hagans will have the assignment of guarding the other team’s best player. So I feel good about this match-up.
Jared Harper: 15.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, 39.8% three-point shooter
While Brown is generous, so too is Jared Harper. It is important that Kentucky locates Harper on defense because he is a sharp shooter. At almost 40% on the season, it is Harper who has taken the second most threes behind Brown. He also has played considerably more minutes than anyone else on Auburn’s team.
Austin Wiley: 11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 bpg
At 6-11, 260, Wiley is a load inside and can really jam up the paint. It will take a good effort from the frontcourt to slow him down and limit any offensive rebounding. Wiley also leads the Tigers in blocked shots. He’s exactly the kind of big man that Reid Travis struggles to score against and defend, so we may see more extended time for Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.