Some could say that Auburn’s season actually began after losing by 27 to Kentucky in February. Since that game Auburn has looked like a different team, winning 11 straight games en route to its first Elite Eight appearance in decades.
Now it has come full circle with Auburn’s magical season at a crossroads with Kentucky on the mend, once again.
Both teams are different from the last time they met with Auburn dominating two of the winningest programs in NCAA history, North Carolina and Kansas.
Coach John Calipari knows this, and knows the Auburn team of late is a different animal than before coming into this game.
“You know, for him to do what he did in that stretch and now they're 11 in a row, I'm telling you, there's no team in the country playing better than them right now,” Calipari said. “We have total respect and really good players who compete and play really hard.”
Here are some players to watch and keys to victory for Part III of Auburn vs. Kentucky.
Players to watch
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Tyler Herro has been the hero for Kentucky many times this season. The freshman guard has been a spark on the offense with his sharpshooting ability and dominant on the defensive end.
Herro has only scored in single digits six times this year, so basically, it has been a given that Herro will score in double figures against just about anybody – including Auburn.
In Herro’s two appearances against Auburn this season, he is averaging 18.5 points, 50 percent from 3 and 50 percent from the field.
Kentucky buried Auburn the last time the two teams met with Auburn’s leading scorer, Bryce Brown, scoring only six points on 28 percent shooting.
In the first meeting Brown and Herro dueled it out with Herro putting up 20 and Brown dropping 28 on six made 3-pointers.
Herro has been a consistent force in this matchup from the offensive end, but it will be a test to see if he can do it defensively, as well.
Arguably Kentucky’s best player offensively and defensively sat out the first two games of the tournament and yet, Kentucky is only one win away from the Final Four.
Rested and ready to go, Washington scored 16 points off the bench in the Sweet Sixteen to help Kentucky advance with a four-point win over Houston.
Washington decided to return to Kentucky for his sophomore year and it has paid off exponentially.
In the last 19 games Washington has played in, he has scored in double figures in 18 of those, while averaging 17 points a game, 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and is hitting 45.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
Washington was up for SEC Player of the Year, but Auburn’s coach Bruce Pearl thinks he should’ve been recognized for a higher honor.
“PJ Washington very easily could have been the National Player of the Year if Kentucky had won one or two more games,” Pearl said. “I mean, there was a time when he was. If Kentucky had won our league, I would have thought that PJ would have gotten it, should have gotten it.
“He's a dominating player. Great story of a guy that you know would have gotten drafted a year ago, but probably would have gotten in the second round and decided to come back. Wasn't afraid to work. He's so much better now, explosive inside, outside game. He was the only player Chuma Okeke faced all year long that maybe got the edge on him, the only player.”
Danjel Purifoy has waited for his chance to get back to what it was like in 2016-17, and now, the time has come.
With Okeke now out for the rest of the tournament, Purifoy will be sprung into Okeke’s role that was so important to the Tigers’ success.
Like mentioned in a previous article, Purifoy’s 2016 stats, when receiving Okeke-like minutes, match up similarly to that of Okeke’s this season.
Purifoy’s teammates know more than anyone that he has what it takes to fill Okeke’s shoes and help Auburn advance to its first ever Final Four.
“When I look at Danjel and see, why can’t Danjel rebound better for us,” Brown said. “Why can’t he knock down shots for us? Why can’t he be a playmaker for us? He is capable of all that. I feel like he’s been filling that spot pretty well. He has the skills to do so, he has the talent to do so.”
Matchup to watch
Jared Harper vs. Ashton Hagans
For the third time Jared Harper and Ashton Hagans will face off in a matchup between two of the best point guards in the SEC – only this time, the stakes are a lot higher.
Hagans is a more old-school point guard with his focus shifted toward defense and setting up his teammates.
Harper, on the other hand, is the modern point guard who loves to push the pace and spread the floor on the offensive end.
The last time these two teams met, Hagans had Harper’s number. Harper scored 12 points on 27 percent shooting with zero assists and three turnovers. Hagans put up 14 points on 75 percent shooting with five assists.
Keep in mind that Harper is the leader in assists per game in the SEC and Hagans held him to zero – the only time all year that Harper has not recorded an assist in a game.
Hagans is not the most prolific scorer but his defense from the point guard slot makes arguably the best defender at that position in the SEC. Hagans also is smart with the basketball and does not turn the ball over often.
Despite the direct matchup, Harper knows that this is a team game and it will take everyone to get it done on Sunday.
“First of all, he's a great player,” Harper said. “He's a great defensive player, does a good job of running their team. I don't know if it's just -- it's going to be personally me against Ashton. That's not what I'm looking to. I don't think that's what our team is looking to. I'm thinking more of Auburn against Kentucky. It's a team game. Going to take a team effort to stop him and stop all the great players that they have.”
Keys to victory
- The Tigers need to stick to their winning formula, forcing turnovers and hitting 3’s
- Auburn needs to limit the rebounding differential, once again – will be difficult without Okeke.
- Don’t let the non-shooters of Kentucky beat you by making shots
- Stay out of foul trouble
- The Wildcats can dominate inside this game with Okeke out
- The dominance inside will open up shots on the outside, have to make these
- Get the free throw line
Stats to know:
Kentucky 76.0 Auburn 80.2
Kentucky 64.4 Auburn 68.8
Kentucky .478 Auburn .453
Kentucky .400 Auburn .347
Kentucky 38.4 Auburn34.2
.359 Kentucky Auburn .381
Kentucky .743 Auburn .708
Kentucky 13.6 Auburn 14.6
Kentucky 6.0 Auburn 9.4
Kentucky 4.8 Auburn 4.7
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