Every conference has one school where the road to a conference championship must go through it. In the SEC, that school is Kentucky, the proverbial blue-blood, filled with NBA-level talent that strikes fear their opponents when they appear on the schedule.
Beating the Wildcats is more than just a win; it legitimizes a entire program for a season.
On Saturday, No. 12 Kentucky takes a trip to Auburn Arena to take on the No. 14 Auburn in a battle for SEC poling position.
Last year, a surprisingly successful Tigers team defeated Kentucky 76-66 on their way to a regular season SEC title.
This was only the second time since 2002 that the Tigers managed a win against UK. There have been more Star Wars movies released in that period than Auburn wins.
Both of those wins came under the Bruce Pearl tenure as he continues to establish Auburn basketball as a national powerhouse. Pearl’s team is currently sixth in the conference and needs a win on Saturday to stay on track for building upon their success from last season.
Beating Kentucky is no small task, but Pearl knows what it takes.
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Much has been made about Auburn shooting 3s from absolutely everywhere on the court. At this point, it’s ingrained into the team's identity. They’re going to let them fly. Where Auburn lacks is on shots inside the arc.
The Tigers are mediocre from 2-point range and often rely on their 3-point shooting to bail out their poor midrange performance. A pitfall this team regularly runs into is long scoring droughts which result in the other side either getting back into the game or increasing the deficit for the Tigers.
If the Tigers could look for easy shots around the rim by taking advantage of defenses overplaying them from the 3-point line and creating pressure by slipping screens or dribble penetration, this problem could be alleviated.
Inversely, Auburn has to let Kentucky shoot the 3-ball. While Kentucky is incredibly athletic, they haven’t had a team that could consistently hurt the opponent from long distance since Malik Monk left.
Baiting the Wildcats into threes will throw a wrench in their offensive plans, Pearl to go the 1-3-1 zone early.
First Half Scoring
Kentucky is 18th in the nation when it comes to first-half scoring. In the second half though, that ranking drops all the way down to 89th. It’s imperative to make the Cats dig themselves out of a hole coming out of the locker room at the half.
When Kentucky is outscored in the first half, they average only 75 points a game, which is five points below their normal average. They go from one of the best offenses in the country to an ordinary one in the SEC.
Auburn, which is a perpetual explosion of points, especially at home, could run away with the game if the team takes care of things in the first half.
Auburn is flat-out the best team in the nation regarding forcing the opponent to make turnovers. On average, Auburn forces 20 turnovers a game, one of only two teams in the nation to do so, and the only one in a Power 5 conference.
The problem is Kentucky does not turn over the ball. John Calipari instills discipline into all of his players, so they won’t cough the ball up quickly. Even when the Wildcats lose they don’t cough up the ball 20 times.
The Tigers are at their best when they are flying down the floor in transition and scoring in a frenzy. That changes when they are forced to run plays out of the half-court. Their plays become predictable and usually result in a forced shot.
It’s not about the number of turnovers they force the Wildcats to make because statistically; it won’t be many. It’s about them capitalizing off the turnovers they do create to get a quick, easy bucket.
In the Jungle, the moniker for Auburn Arena, the crowd erupts when their team scores a turnover which the players feed off of. Moments like that is the reason why 24 of Auburn's past 25 home opponents have left The Plains with a loss. Forcing turnovers will unlock the advantage of the home crowd for Auburn.
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