These two teams have been on a collision course since February.
Fifth-seeded Auburn’s last loss came at the hands of the 2-seed Wildcats in a 53-80 loss. This was Auburn’s second loss of the season to Kentucky. In their first matchup in January, the Tigers overcame a 17-point second-half deficit, but Jared Harper couldn't hit on a running layup in the waning seconds, losing 80-82.
Since the most recent loss to UK, Auburn has torn a swath through the college basketball world, leading the nation with an 11-game win streak.
And both the Tigers and Wildcats have overcome top blue blood teams the season.
UK began its season with an 82-70 win over UNC back in December. Then the Wildcats defeated Kansas 71-63 in January. Auburn just won statement games against Kansas, 89-75, and UNC, 97-80, to get a shot at Kentucky in the Tigers' first Elite Eight since 1986.
"I'm telling you, there is no team in the country playing better than them right now, and we have total respect,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
Though Kentucky appeared to be the favorite coming into this game, it’s not unbeatable. The Wildcats have fallen to Alabama, LSU, Duke, Tennessee and Seton Hall. In all of these games Kentucky has had an abysmal 3-point shooting performance. UK was able to out rebound everyone but Duke, and its free-throw percentage is among the highest in the country.
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The template is there for Auburn to win this game, it just starts and ends with the 3-point shot. That’s good news for the Tigers, who have been shooting lights out from the 3-point line; in their last two games they have made 30 three-pointers and forced teams to play at their haphazard pace.
In Auburn’s first loss to Kentucky, which was by two points, the Tigers were hitting their 3s, but played a turnover-heavy game. So, step one has to be to protect the possession, with a team like Kentucky, Auburn can’t afford to not score on almost every possession.
In Auburn’s second loss to Kentucky, the spark that started this fire, the Tigers shot 29.6 percent from 3 and couldn’t create points in the paint.
If the 3-point shot isn’t falling, the Tigers have to rely on the quickness of point guard Jared Harper and shooting guard Malik Dunbar to get into the paint and make plays. They also need to find a way to incorporate 6-foot-11 center Austin Wiley in the offense.
The one clear disadvantage for Auburn was the loss of its starboy power forward, Chuma Okeke. Okeke tore his ACL in the Tigers last game against UNC. Okeke was Auburn’s leading scorer in their most recent bout against Kentucky.
"I don't feel like Chuma deserves that at all," said Auburn guard Bryce Brown. "He works so hard, spends so much time in the gym, makes sure his body is right. It's our job to pick him up.”
If Auburn can keep rolling at the 3-point line and protect the ball, the Tigers have a clear shot at advancing to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
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