Now in his 13th season at Kentucky, you’ll never hear Coach John Calipari looking ahead at possible matchups as “staying in the present” and playing “one game at a time” is the company line, especially for a young basketball team.
But this year’s Kentucky Wildcats team is built different, with an experienced group that went off script following an 80-71 loss at No. 2 Auburn, as Kellan Grady and Oscar Tshiebwe are itching for a rematch with the Tigers, who are in sole possession of first place in the SEC.
If Saturday’s game proved anything, it’s that a Wildcat lineup at full strength can beat the best teams in the country as Kentucky held a 10-point lead in the first half, knocking down shots and matching Auburn’s intensity in front of a sell out crowd.
Unfortunately, TyTy Washington exited the game with an ankle injury and Sahvir Wheeler missed action during a crucial time in the second half as the Tigers are now a lock to be the nation’s top-ranked team come Monday.
“We shot 50% from the field, so we had our opportunities,” Grady said after Kentucky fell to 5-2 in conference play. “We got to learn from this, and we hope to see them again.”
Like Grady, Tshiebwe was also quick to set his sights on a rematch with Auburn after finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds, his 13th double-double of the season.
“I hope we match up against them again, probably in the SEC Tournament when everybody will be healthy and ready to go,” said Tshiebwe. “Because I don’t think they are better than us, in my opinion. I think we’re going to beat them. I want to play them again. I want to see them.”
On Saturday, Auburn was simply the better offensive team, shooting 56.8% from the field (25/44), the highest percentage by a UK opponent this season. The Tigers also were 24-of-29 from the free throw line, while Kentucky only made 10 trips to the charity stripe (8/10).
“It was a really tough lacrosse game, and we had nine turnovers so there was good stuff that we did,” said Calipari. “But we had some breakdowns defensively, and they shot a high percentage, probably the most anyone has shot on us this year...especially from the foul line. I don’t know if we’ve ever fouled that many times.”
Per the scouting report, Kentucky’s primary goal was to contain Auburn’s 6-foot-11 forward Jabari Smith, who’s been projected as the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. That task was relatively successful according to Calipari as Smith finished with 14 points.
However, the biggest challenge proved to be guarding 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler who dominated the paint in Auburn’s pick and roll with a game-high 19 points, most of which were lob dunks.
“Defensively, the lob play, which we just kept telling the guy “get off” and they just wouldn’t do it,” said Calipari when asked about the pick and roll defense. “At one point, we had one guy jump, but he had no intention of tipping the ball away, like he was looking at the guy’s body, like I don’t want to hit him. You have to go do that. They’ve done this to a lot of teams, but it was something we thought we could guard.”
In the end, Kentucky had no answer for Kessler and needed the bench to step up with Washington and Wheeler unavailable at different times in the game. The rotation remains a work in progress with six players getting the bulk of minutes on Saturday as Lance Ware, Dontaie Allen and Bryce Hopkins played sparingly, each playing less than two minutes, and Daimion Collins did not see action.
Kentucky will try to get back in the win column when it hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena before facing No. 7th-ranked Kansas on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.