This is the game that all of Auburn country is really concerned about, right? They can put the National Championship game against Oregon on the backburner because on Tuesday night their Tigers go into Rupp Arena and face the Kentucky Wildcats.
Speaking of backburners, Auburn would really like to forget about their first half performance on Saturday against LSU. In the first SEC game ever played at their brand new arena, it must have taken a while for them to get adjusted to the lighting or something. At the half they trailed LSU, 32-6. SIX. They put up six total points in the first 20 minutes. Cam Newton scores that many points on a two-yard plunge.
They did outscore LSU by 19 in the second half to make the score respectful, but neither Tiger squad appears as if it’s going to be too fierce this season. In fact, we could be looking at an SEC West where eight wins could give you the top seed for the SEC Tournament.
Auburn entered the 2010-11 season with a brand new coach as Jeff Lebo was let go following another losing season. Enter Tony Barbee, the former UTEP head coach and assistant of John Calipari while at Memphis.
Barbee was brought in to bring that energy and to recruit at a high level. 15 games into the transition and it appears as if it is going to take a while. But, in all honesty, who thought that Barbee could turn around the Auburn program overnight? With the brand new arena and his recruiting expertise, the opportunity is there.
The Tigers enter the Kentucky game with a 7-8 record and have suffered losses to North Carolina-Asheville, Samford, Mercer, Jacksonville and Presbyterian. They have also lost to two doormats of the Big East in Rutgers and South Florida.
However, they are just two games removed from a 65-60 upset win over Florida State. The win showed definite improvement for Auburn, but FSU should be faulted for the loss just as much as the Tigers should be credited for the win. For some reason the ‘Noles absolutely refused to take advantage of their size underneath. Chris Singleton could have scored at will and if FSU would have continually fed the low block, the Tigers would have had issues. But, they didn’t and Auburn won.
Offensively, they are led by sophomore guard Earnest Ross (6-5, 215). Ross is a bonafide gunslinger and there isn’t a shot he doesn’t like. He leads the team in scoring with 13.0 a game, but in doing so has 49 more shot attempts than anyone else. He is shooting just 38-percent from the floor and 29-percent from deep.
He is second on the team with 21 threes made on the year and on Saturday shot a ridiculous 5-for-15 from beyond the arc. His 15 three-point attempts and 39 minutes of action signify the Tigers lack of depth because there is no way that on a team with depth that a head coach would continuously allow someone to just pull like that.
Despite his lack of size, Ross also leads the Tigers in rebounding with 6.9 a game.
Although he comes off of the bench for the Tigers, look for junior forward Kenny Gabriel (6-8, 190) to get into the action early. He is third on the team in points with 9.3 and second in rebounds 5.9. Sophomore Andre Malone is second on the team is scoring with 11.7 points but he has missed their last four games and is expected to miss Tuesday’s contest, as well.
Gabriel has scored in double figures in six of his last eight games and is a threat from deep, knocking down 16 on the season while shooting 33-percent.
One returnee from last year’s squad is junior Frankie Sullivan (6-1, 195), but he has suffered through knee injuries all season and has managed to play in just six games. He is not expected to suit up against Kentucky.
Look for the Tigers to go small against the Wildcats and to run four-out-one-in or even all-five-out sets in an attempt to move Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson away from the basket. They are shooting 34-percent from beyond the arc, but I expect them to rely heavily on their perimeter shooting to stay in the game.
On defense I’m not sure how they plan on defending the Wildcats. Kentucky is quicker, longer, bigger and more athletic. They are even deeper due to Auburn’s plethora of injuries. I would imagine that Barbee will throw a full compliment of defenses at John Calipari, but I’m not sure how they will slow them down.
When Kentucky doesn’t score, it will be tough for the undersized Tigers to pull down defensive rebounds against Jones and Harrellson.
I was not impressed with UK’s play at Georgia on Saturday. They were completely out-physicalled by Georgia and just never really got in sync on offense.
Still, I don’t see them having problems with an overmatched Auburn team, especially if they defend the perimeter.
Kentucky 84, Auburn 69