The Kentucky Wildcats’ survival of the Houston Cougars late Friday night earned them a matchup with the Auburn Tigers in Sunday’s Elite Eight, with the winner advancing on to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
With the Tennessee Volunteers bowing out to Purdue on Thursday, Auburn and Kentucky are the two remaining Southeastern Conference teams in this year’s tournament. Come Sunday evening, only one will remain.
Sunday will mark the third matchup this season between the Tigers and the Wildcats, with Kentucky sweeping the regular season series 2-0. This specific circumstance is different, however, as the Tigers enter Sunday’s game playing as good of basketball as any team in the country. Kentucky, narrowly defeating their two most recent opponents, comes into the game having not played a “perfect” game in close to a month.
There are two major factors that will go against Auburn in this matchup. First, Tigers forward Chuma Okeke unfortunately tore his ACL on Friday against North Carolina. Okeke, averaging 12 points and seven rebounds per contest, is one of Auburn’s most reliable players in the front court and had played exceptionally well of late.
The second is that that Wildcats haven’t played their best game yet. Their opening round performance against Abilene Christian was against arguably the worst competition the tournament had to offer. Kentucky then snuck past Wofford and Houston to earn the right to play for a Final Four appearance.
The Wildcats’ have the opportunity to heat up at just the right time, using their defense to fuel easier offense and gain momentum. Specifically, Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro have combined to put forth one of the more underrated defensive backcourts of the tournament and are in line for another tough challenge against Auburn’s Bryce Brown and Jared Harper.
A rather comforting site on Friday was the performance of PJ Washington in his return from a sprained foot. He and Reid Travis have fared well against the Tigers this season and, with Okeke out, they should both be poised for a successful outing.
The advanced analytics suggest this will be a highly-contested game that should come down to the final minutes. After beating Houston on Friday, Kentucky rose to seventh overall in KenPom efficiency.
The Cats have dipped a bit on offense, as they now rank 12th in offensive efficiency. One area where Kentucky is elite on offensive is crashing the boards, as they rank fifth nationally in offensive rebound efficiency.
The Cats’ defense remains one of the nation’s best, as they rank eighth in defensive efficiency, seventh in two-point defense, and 23rd in opponent effective field goal percentage.
Auburn is an offensive juggernaut that now ranks sixth in offensive efficiency, 24th in effective field goal percentage, and 14th in three-point percentage.
However, Auburn has the worst defense remaining in the Big Dance, as they rank 43rd in defensive efficiency, and they just lost arguably their best defender in Chuma Okeke.
But the Tigers do force turnovers at a high rank, as they rank first in opponent turnover percentage. That’s where they’ll look to turn the tide against a young Kentucky backcourt that’s been very turnover-prone at times this season. Kentucky ranks 182nd in turnover percentage.
Even without Okeke, this will be a war in Kansas City between two teams that can taste Minneapolis, and Auburn will have an added desire to get there since it would be the program’s first Final Four appearance. It would also be the first for Bruce Pearl, who is still clearly one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Kentucky opened as a 2.5-point favorite, but that spread has since grew once confirmation came out that Chuma Okeke suffered an ACL tear. That’s a huge loss for Auburn, which has led to the spread rising to 4.5 in favor of Kentucky.
But that’s not completely scaring bettors away. According to OddsShark, 55% of the spread bets are in favor of Auburn covering. The over/under is 141, which 67% of bettors are wisely picking the over with. Even without Okeke, there should be a lot of points scored Sunday.
Here are some betting trends for both teams:
- Kentucky is 4-1 ATS in its last 5 games
- Kentucky is 20-3 SU in its last 23 games
- The total has gone UNDER in 5 of Kentucky’s last 6 games
- Kentucky is 2-3-1 ATS in its last 6 games when playing Auburn
- Kentucky is 21-2 SU in its last 23 games when playing Auburn
- The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Kentucky’s last 5 games when playing Auburn
- Auburn is 7-2 ATS in its last 9 games
- Auburn is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games
- The total has gone OVER in 4 of Auburn’s last 5 games
- Auburn is 2-21 SU in its last 23 games when playing Kentucky
- The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Auburn’s last 5 games when playing Kentucky
ESPN’s BPI matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 68.1% chance of winning.
Sports Illustrated’s Emily Caron is going with Auburn to pull off the upset.
CBS Sports gambling expert Hammerin Hank is going with the Wildcats, while fellow odds guru Kenny White is going with Auburn.
The OddsShark computer projects a 71-70.6 win for Kentucky.
Sports Chat Place is picking Auburn to win.
Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News is siding with the Wildcats of Lexington.
Winners and Whiners is picking Kentucky.
Both of SNY’s betting experts are going with Big Blue Nation.
TeamRankings is going with Kentucky in a 72-68 barnburner.
numberFire is going with a 74-71 victory for Kentucky.
It’s hard to defeat any team, in any sport, three times in one season. However, it’s far from impossible. Kentucky matches up extremely well with Auburn, as the Wildcats’ present two-way guards that force the Tigers’ guards to defend.
While Auburn has shot the basketball extremely well from behind the arc, Kentucky has defended that area of the court extremely well. One side will have to give on Sunday afternoon and the old saying is “defense wins championships.”
Final Score: Kentucky 77, Auburn 70