In mid-January things looked bleak for the Kentucky Wildcats, as they sat on the wrong side of the bubble.
Now a month later, John Calipari has led his team to an impressive turnaround and looks to have solidified themselves into the NCAA Tournament after winning 9 of their last 12 games.
After a tough-fought win against the Florida Gators, the Wildcats will host the Auburn Tigers on Saturday for their next challenge. However, unlike Kentucky, the Tigers look to be trending in the wrong direction, losing six of their last nine.
With that said, all signs are pointing to this game being a close one. Case in point, the two teams are separated by just a few spots in the NET rankings (Kentucky: 28th, Auburn 31st).
In addition, this game has major implications involving the conference standings, and subsequently the SEC Tournament picture. Kentucky currently sits in third place with a 10-5 mark in league play, which means they’d be a top-four team and get a double bye if the league tournament began today.
Auburn, meanwhile, is sitting at 9-6 in league play, tied with Tennessee for the fourth-best record. If the Cats are able to win this game, they’ll just about have a top-four finish locked up.
Lose, however, and it becomes much dicier heading into the final week of regular-season play.
As the end of the regular season draws nearer, it is important for each team to finish strong.
Let’s take a closer look at the matchup.
Rebound, Rebound, Rebound
Oscar Tshiebwe and Johni Broome, the SEC’s two leading rebounders, will face off on Saturday in a ‘battle of the boards’. Each is vitally important to their teams, helping get extra possessions.
Yet, it is not just Broome that is capable of rebounding as they average one of the best marks in the SEC, with 37.5 rebounds per game and 10.2 offensive rebounds per game. The same is true of Kentucky, which is statistically a better rebounding team, especially with Jacob Toppin and Chris Livingston improving significantly in that area.
One thing to note is that Oscar Tshiebwe tabbed the Auburn game as one he was most excited for in the preseason, so expect him to be extra motivated. The most important key to victory is winning the rebounding battle and limiting Auburn to one shot per possession.
Make Some Threes, Force Auburn to Shoot Threes
While their offense has been respectable, Auburn’s been a better defensive team this season. Similar to Florida, they like to run opponents off of the three-point line - 4th in opponent three-point percentage (27.7%) - and funnel them into their good interior defense - fifth in blocks (5.6 bpg).
Due to this, Auburn will happily give up the mid-range shot, a shot that Wildcats can take but cannot fall in love with on Saturday. Instead, they will capitalize on the three-point opportunities they are given, to space the floor and allow driving lanes for Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston.
On the other hand, Auburn is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, and they know that by not taking too many. The Wildcats need to continue to show improvement at defending the pick and roll and force Auburn to beat them with three.
Then again, they could come into Rupp Arena and have their best shooting game of the season, as a lot of teams have.
Make Free Throws
Auburn will foul as they foul at one of the highest rates in the country, nearly 35% of the time. As of late, they have been fouling at an even higher clip, with their opponents averaging nearly 28 free throw attempts per game over the last five games.
With Kentucky’s tendency to be more aggressive as of late, they should see plenty of the time as well. Fortunately, they have shot 75% or better in three of their last four games and will need that to continue to provide a good portion of their scoring.
Kentucky Basketball (19-9) vs. Auburn Tigers (19-9)
Time/Date: 4:00 pm ET on February 25th, 2023
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Channel: CBS
Online Stream: CBS Sports
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: SEC Network (Check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Kentucky installed as a 4-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor is fairly confident in the Wildcats, giving them a 67.4% chance to win. Bart Torvik chooses Kentucky, but with less confidence at 55%. KenPom has it at 58%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks the Wildcats to win in a thrilling battle, 71-70. KenPom went with a 72-70 win for the home team. TeamRankings (via ESPN) is going with a 71-70 victory, Kentucky!