The ESPN College GameDay basketball show will go to Auburn for the first time this Saturday. The Plains will be rocking as Kentucky comes to town. Kentucky has handled tough road situations well on each of the past two Saturdays, at Arkansas (Jan. 18) and then at Texas Tech (Jan. 25).
By Matt Zemek
As February begins, the Wildcats know that if they can handle Auburn – one of the SEC teams which is almost certain to make the NCAA Tournament – they ought to be able to contend for the SEC title. A loss would create fresh doubts about Big Blue’s ability to display the consistency needed to catch and then pass LSU for the regular season championship.
Let’s look at what Kentucky needs to focus on against Auburn. The key point of emphasis with this team, this season: It’s all about Kentucky. What opponents do is far less relevant if the Wildcats play the right way.
1 – Tyrese Maxey maxing out
Maxey scored 17 points against Vanderbilt. It might have been “only Vanderbilt,” but Maxey had been struggling in recent weeks. Any noticeable improvement is sorely needed for a player who starred in the season opener against Michigan State. If Maxey reaches anywhere close to the ceiling of his potential, Kentucky will be a nasty and difficult opponent in March… and against Auburn. Maxey’s confidence might be higher after that Vanderbilt performance. Getting another good game out of him will enable Maxey to retain that confidence. That’s why Saturday is so important for him and the team.
2 – Nick Richards foul trouble
This was always obvious, but now, we’re going to make it an explicit game key because we have good reason to do so. If anyone doubted the centrality of Richards to the 2020 Wildcats, that last shred of uncertainty was shattered by the Vanderbilt game. Richards picked up four fouls and played only 22 minutes, a main reason Vanderbilt was able to stay so close for so long. Yet, in the 22 minutes in which Richards was on the floor, Kentucky outscored Vanderbilt by 16 points. In those 22 minutes, Richards posted 15 points and 11 rebounds. Imagine what can happen if he plays 35 minutes against Auburn. Richards is probably the front-runner for 2020 SEC Player of the Year. Kentucky can’t win the national title or the SEC title – or beat Auburn – if he plays fewer than 25 minutes.
3 – Solid start
Kentucky can’t snooze in the first half the way it did versus Vanderbilt. Auburn just played a double overtime game against Ole Miss. The Tigers will be fired up to play this game, but they might get worn down late in regulation due to the demands of that Ole Miss contest. As long as Kentucky’s energy is consistently high, and the Wildcats don’t allow Auburn to bust out of the gate with a 10-point lead, this will be a hard game for Auburn to win over the course of 40 full minutes. UK should get stronger, AU weaker, as the game goes along. Only if Auburn senses it can win in the first half will this game become more complicated than it needs to be.