The #12 Kentucky Wildcats face a major test on the road in the SEC as they call on the #14 Auburn Tigers Saturday. The game is scheduled to tip at 4 pm EST and will be televised on ESPN.
For the Cats, it’s another opportunity to take a step forward both in the conference and in the national consciousness. UK currently sits at 13-3 and 3-1 in SEC play, winning home matchups over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt and losing on the road to Alabama. Kentucky is coming off its first SEC road win, a convincing 69-49 win over the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Cats are led by their freshman back court of Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson. Johnson leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.6 points per game. Hagans has established himself as the teams point guard and lockdown defender, giving the Cats their defensive identity.
Auburn has their own dynamic back court as well. The Tigers are led by guard Bryce Brown’s 16.2 points per game and Jared Harper’s 6.7 assists per game. Auburn comes in winners of four of their last five. Their only SEC loss is to #18 Ole Miss on the road in Oxford.
With this type of conference game coming up, the staff at A Sea of Blue have gathered around the round table to discuss the match up and give their game predictions.
This is another opportunity for UK to prove themselves on the national and conference stage against a stout opponent. Auburn and coach Bruce Pearl have the type of team that can give the Cats a run for their money both athletically and physically.
I think both backcourts kind of cancel each other out. However, I think the Cats have the advantage in the frontcourt with PJ Washington, Reid Travis, and Nick Richards. If the Cats can establish their will in the paint, the guards will make the plays needed to win on the Plains.
I’m thinking the Cats win the battle on the plains in a tight one.
Prediction: Cats 74, Tigers 66
Auburn shoots the three extremely well, and the Cats have had trouble guarding the perimeter shooters this season. The good news is that they have gotten much better here thanks to the defensive intensity of Ashton Hagans.
Hagans has injected life into these Wildcats, particularly on the defensive end of things. The freshman point guard will have his work cut out for him Saturday, as he will be charged with guarding Bryce Brown, who is averaging 16.2 points per game and is shooting over 40%.
Bruce Pearl will no doubt throw some different looks defensively at the Cats as he tries to muck up their offense. UK looked much better at the zones that Georgia used against them thanks to Hagan’s ability to slice through the lane for a dish off or a lay up.
Kentucky has the size advantage, but Austin Wiley could present some problems for them down low. Looking at this game and Auburn’s lineup, this should be a chance for Keldon Johnson to shine.
The Tigers start three guards, and that should be an advantage for Johnson offensively and defensively. But Pearl does have Anfernee McLemore coming off the bench at 6-7 to neutralize Johnson.
This is always a tough road game for the Cats but they’re 2-1 on the road this season. A win at the gym of a ranked opponent would be huge for this team. I think they get it.
Prediction: Kentucky 85, Auburn 81
Kentucky will face another road test this weekend when they travel to Auburn to face the Tigers. Ever since Bruce Pearl arrived, he has changed Auburn’s basketball program for the better, as they were one of the best teams in the SEC last season and share the same record as Kentucky this year.
For Kentucky, Ashton Hagans has completely changed the makeup of this team. His defensive aggression and improved offense is lifting all the other pieces up to another level. On the road against Georgia with his hometown crowd against him and without the help of Keldon Johnson, Hagans led UK to a 20-point win.
For Auburn, Bryce Brown, Austin Wiley and Jared Harper lead a group that shoots 45% from the field and nearly 40% from three.
There are no easy games in the SEC, but this is going to be a different test altogether. Both teams have an opportunity to make a statement in the SEC with a win in the first of their two matchups. I think Kentucky will split their games with the top teams in the SEC, so I believe this is the game the Cats drop against Auburn this season.
Prediction: Auburn 78, Kentucky 72
Outside of Duke and North Carolina, this is Kentucky’s biggest test so far this season. Auburn is a quality basketball team that will be challenging Kentucky and Tennessee for the SEC crown.
To make things even more difficult this game will be played down on the plains in Auburn, where Kentucky was beat by 10 a year ago. What will make this match up specifically tough for Kentucky is Auburn shoots the lights out from downtown.
Even when they’re struggling, Auburn fires up three after three. This has been a challenge for Kentucky to stop all year. The key to winning this game for Kentucky will be the play of their front court. PJ Washington and Reid Travis have struggled of late, while EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards have played well.
Expect their to be a shorter leash for PJ and Reid this week if they struggle. This is a tough matchup for Kentucky, and while I expect it to be a close one, I’m not sold they can pull it out on the road against a top-15 team.
Prediction: Auburn 76, Kentucky 70
The Kentucky Wildcat will take on the Auburn Tigers in what could be a very important game for SEC and NCAA Tournament seeding. Both teams come in at 13-3 on the year and ranked in the top 15 nationally.
The Tigers returned a lot of talent from last year’s team that won the SEC regular season crown. They’re a very good and very dangerous basketball team, but they’ve been somewhat underwhelming so far this season. They took Duke the distance back in November before ultimately losing by six, but they’ve really struggled away from home.
That being said, the Tigers are hard to beat at Auburn Arena, where they have won 24 of their last 25 home games. And the difference is three-point shooting. Auburn jacks threes like crazy, which isn’t good for the Cats.
The Tigers hit 39.3% of their three-pointers at home and only 30.4% away from home. Led by senior guard Bryce Brown and junior guard Jared Harper, a deadly duo, Auburn is the SEC’s leading three-point shooting team in terms of volume and the fourth-best in percentage (35.9%). The veteran guards are averaging 16.2 points per game (37.8% from three) and 15.1 ppg (40.1% from three), respectively.
Throw in junior center Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, along with multiple solid role players, and Auburn proves to be the biggest threat to win the SEC outside of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Nick Richards has got to continue to play at a high level, and he’s got to get more playing time. Ashton Hagans has to slow down one of Auburn’s star guards. And the Cats have to defend to three-point line as good as they have all season.
This is Kentucky’s second toughest road game of the season, behind at Tennessee, and I think Kentucky will have to play close to perfect to win this one.
After watching the Cats dominate Tuesday night, I felt a lot better about the game Saturday, but Auburn is no Georgia. I wouldn’t be surprised if UK could pull out a win, but I just don’t see it happening.
Prediction: Auburn 81, Kentucky 71