Game day inside Auburn Arena always gets the orange and blue faithful rowdy on the Plains, but this weekend’s matchup with Kentucky carries rare weight.
For decades, the Wildcats have been a dominant force in the Southeastern Conference, achieving high rankings, stellar recruiting classes and deep runs in March with consistency. In contrast, Auburn basketball hadn’t seen much historic achievement until recently, with the team’s last tournament appearance before these past two years coming in 2003.
When looking at this matchup a few years ago, it could hardly be called a comparison between two equals. Kentucky held an average margin of victory of over 11 points in 17 matchups from 2000 to 2014.
Kentucky ranked beneath Auburn just once in those games, which coincidentally was the only time the Tigers defeated the Wildcats. Kentucky won 18 games in a row against the Tigers, with Auburn’s closest bid at an upset falling three points short before managing a win in 2016. Auburn basketball was, in no uncertain terms, the kid brother to a true blueblood in Lexington.
Enter: Bruce Pearl.
Pearl is now a fixture in the textured and colorful fabric of the Auburn Family, so it would feel redundant to break down how he’s turned the program around, recruited and coached at an unprecedented level.
There is a trend, however: Kentucky has been a litmus test for his teams over the course of Pearl's time at Auburn. In particular, the past three matchups from the 2018-19 season had rippling impacts that could be felt in the moment and now.
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College GameDay is coming for Saturday’s matchup between the No. 13 Wildcats and the No. 17 Tigers, so let’s look back to see what this game could mean in the scheme of the current season.
Game 1: No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn
Final score: Wildcats 82, Tigers 80
On a rainy Saturday, two preseason titans of the SEC clashed in Auburn Arena in front of a sold-out crowd, champing at the bit for a huge win to push the Tigers to 3-1 in conference play and 14-3 overall.
The story of Auburn’s year had been inconsistency, as a team with excellent shooters struggled to find success from behind the arc with any regularity, with the most recent cold game coming in a bad loss to Ole Miss in Oxford. Kentucky was more mortal than usual, and sat as the second-best SEC team behind Tennessee. While the Wildcats had a better floor than the Tigers, they didn’t have the same scoring ceiling that the Tigers had, and Pearl had given better Kentucky rosters upsetting losses with less talent.
This was a potential statement game for an Auburn program looking to cement itself as a repeat contender after dwelling in relative obscurity for so long, and a chance to prove that the previous year’s No. 4 ranking in the tournament wasn’t a fluke.
Bryce Brown led the team within an efficient but deadly game from the star senior, scoring 28 points on 8-of-9 shooting, while co-star Jared Harper (17 points) made standout plays including a 3-pointer with 32 seconds to play.
Victory and a chance to ramp up some momentum heading into a tough stretch of schedule were within reach, but Kentucky hit two free throws to reclaim the lead. Samir Doughty’s desperation shot caromed off the rim, and Kentucky escaped The Jungle with a narrow victory.
Auburn had proven its ability to play with anyone no matter the situation, coming back from down 17 at one point, but the orange and blue fell just short of the all-important win. The Tigers fell to .500 in SEC play and looked deflated coming out of the game. That image would last for a while.
Game 2: Auburn at No. 4 Kentucky
Final Score: Wildcats 80, Tigers 53
This game was the pain of the Tigers’ season to this point encapsulated in 40 minutes of play.
Auburn had fallen off the wagon since the Kentucky game, coming into the matchup 7-6 in the SEC and 5-4 since losing to Kentucky at home in January. The team looked destabilized, with erratic shooting and disappointing defense that was heavily exposed in a loss to Mississippi State, giving up a season-worst 92 points.
This game was a shot at a turnaround, but on the road and facing a Kentucky team that had been playing much better basketball as of late, it was a tall task for a downtrodden squad.
Chuma Okeke led Auburn scoring with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting, the team had a 32.8 FG%, and Harper, usually an elite scorer, was shut down along with Brown with the two combining for 5-of-18 shooting and 18 points.
Kentucky led almost the entire game and rambled up and down the court, posting a 54.5 field-goal percentage. The Wildcats were never really tested, and Auburn fell back to .500 in SEC play.
“I'm not surprised that they're this good. However, I am surprised that we were not competitive today," Pearl said at the time. "I thought we legitimately had the chance to come in here and play with them. We were physically overwhelmed.”
The Tigers looked forward to a four-game stretch leading up to the SEC Tournament that featured road games against a pesky Georgia team and the rival Crimson Tide, as well as a showdown with then-No. 7 Tennessee. The thought was that Auburn couldn’t find the rhythm to compete with top teams; that was the narrative in late February.
Game 3: Auburn vs. Kentucky in the Elite Eight
Final score: Tigers 77, Wildcats 71
The Tigers made it to the Elite Eight with a win streak now spanning 11 games, ready to face down a familiar foe.
That brings us back to the team where the streak began. Auburn had never made it to a Final Four in its history and had the chance to do so while vanquishing their regular-season demons, while Kentucky had a chance to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
In an overtime thriller, Auburn came out on top thanks to tenacious defense and 26 points from Harper, who made 11-of-11 free throws.
The win was arguably the biggest in program history, and the added accomplishment of beating a conference rival and established basketball power made it even sweeter.
The Tigers would go on to lose to the eventual champion Virginia in the Final Four, ending a historic run, but the Kentucky games bookending the run served as clear indicators of the program’s shift in mindset, as well as Pearl’s abilities as a head coach to rally the troops and coach teams that can truly play with anyone, at any time.
This Saturday, Auburn looks to improve to 19-2 on the year and 6-2 in conference play in a clear marquee matchup.
Auburn and Kentucky will tip off at 5 p.m. CST on ESPN.
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