The Kentucky Wildcats are playing the way their fans always hoped they could play. A team which was messing around and producing a lot of mediocre basketball for much of the season has started to kick things into high gear.
By Matt Zemek
A strong win at LSU, a resourceful victory against Florida, and an authoritative road win at Texas A&M have all changed the tenor in Kentucky’s inner circle. This team is now acting like a Final Four contender. It is tightening its grip on the SEC, and now it can deliver a knockout punch to seal the SEC regular-season championship. LSU’s continued implosion means Auburn is the one SEC team with a realistic chance of overtaking Kentucky for the No. 1 seed at the SEC Tournament. The Tigers have suffered a few bad losses in recent weeks to put Kentucky in the driver’s seat, but UK knows it has to take Bruce Pearl’s team seriously. Auburn, after all, denied Big Blue a Final Four trip last year. It is time for payback – not just for that Elite Eight game a year ago, but for Auburn’s win a few weeks ago.
1 – Isaac Okoro
Auburn’s downturn can be directly connected to Okoro, the team’s best player. Auburn would suffer if one of several players was injured, but it’s clear that Okoro matters most to the Tigers. His defense and rim protection, plus his rebounding, plus his feel for the game at both ends of the court, stabilize Auburn and knit the Tigers together. Other players fit their roles perfectly when Okoro is on the floor. Okoro is an anchor for the Tigers, and AU’s defense was unsurprisingly strong when Okoro returned to the lineup earlier this week in a victory over Ole Miss. Kentucky and Nick Richards need to handle Okoro at both ends of the floor. Achieving that one goal does more to help the Wildcats win than anything else on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
2 – Reduced fouling
Yes, it was probably a case of home-court reffing, but nevertheless, Kentucky simply did not adjust to how officials were calling the previous meeting between these two teams in Auburn. Kentucky gave the Tigers far too many free throw attempts and allowed AU to win even on a day when Pearl’s pupils shot very poorly from 3-point range. It is true that Kentucky could not have been worse in terms of fouling and allowing free throws to an opponent in that game versus Auburn. The point of emphasis is that Kentucky can’t be happy with a slight improvement; it needs a MAJOR improvement to address this specific area of need.
3 – 3-point defense
Kentucky defended Auburn’s 3-point shooting extremely well in the first game between these teams. Auburn will try to shoot the three a lot better than it did the first time. Kentucky has to continue to run Auburn off the 3-point line and at least make sure that no Auburn player develops a noticeable groove on long balls. It is unlikely that Auburn will shoot terribly on threes in two separate games versus Kentucky, but the Wildcats can’t allow the Tigers to run wild.