The Wildcats season took another turn for the worse on Saturday after dropping their game 85-74 at Texas A&M. It was an expected loss – another sign that this has not been a good season – and now Kentucky is on the brink of picking up John Calipari’s first four-game losing streak since 2004-05 when he was at Memphis. The team needs a turnaround or Kentucky could be headed for a spot in the NIT after being ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll. The first chance to change that narrative comes on Wednesday night at No. 10 Auburn.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Watch for the status of Bryce Brown
Auburn muscled past Georgia on the road on Saturday with an impressive 78-61 victory. The win would have been expected when looking at the standings, but the Tigers had to run with just an eight-man rotation because of a couple of injuries. The biggest of these injuries is to leading scorer – and the team’s top defender – Bryce Brown.
Auburn was able to get past Georgia without Brown, but could they do the same against Kentucky? Brown has a shoulder sprain and is listed as day-to-day on the injury report meaning that there is no guarantee he will be back in the lineup on Wednesday. Even if he is, a shoulder problem is a bad one to have in basketball and it is hard to imagine he would be at full strength. If his 16.6 points per game are not on the court then this becomes a much closer game on paper.
Use your size
Auburn does not start a single player taller than 6-foot-7. The Tigers schedule has been kind up until this point in terms of size mismatches, but the Georgia game marked a change in that trend. The Bulldogs start three players 6-foot-8 or taller, but it was the Tigers that won the rebounding battle on Saturday 31-27. Starting Auburn forward Desean Murray – all 6-foot-3 of him – led the Tigers with seven rebounds.
With six players on the roster who are 6-foot-9 or taller, Kentucky simply cannot let this happen.
Rebounds are a matter of desire as much as technique and the Tigers fight for every ball. Even so, a 6-foot-3 forward should be limited to a handful of rebounds (at absolute most) against a Kentucky team that is long and athletic. It is channeling that desire that has been an issue for Kentucky all year, but turning it up in this one should allow the Wildcats to outsize and out physical Auburn.
Don’t let Jared Harper own the game
If Kentucky is to beat Auburn then the game needs to be played at a pace – and in a style – that suits the Wildcats. The player to stop on the Tigers team in order to make this happen is point guard Jared Harper.
With Brown out of the lineup against Georgia, Harper stepped up with 24 points and seven assists in an imperious display. He is a master of setting tempo, quarterbacking the team from his position and getting his teammates into position to make shots or contribute to the offense in other ways. That 24-point performance tied his career-high, showing that Harper is in fine form as the SEC season winds down. Kentucky needs to bother Harper with the length of its guards, speeding up slowing down the play and never letting him find a comfortable rhythm.