(Photo Courtesy of CBSSports.com)
Kentucky loses a hard fought road game against a ranked team after losing Wheeler and Washington to injury.
Stop me if you've heard this one before...
The number 12 ranked Wildcats made the trip to Auburn for a primetime game against the number 2 ranked Tigers. There was no shortage of hype and excitement from either side in this heavyweight bout. For the second game in a row, Kentucky was facing a sold out crowd that made sure to to color coordinate. A "T-shirt game" as Cal would put it. Auburn students camped outside the stadium for a chance to see Kentucky come to town. As it is for all of Kentucky's opponents, this was clearly Auburn's Superbowl.
The Cats however, did not shy away from the challenge. They jumped out to an early 10 point lead in "Pearlville" (which is the worst nickname for a place). Soon after though, disaster struck. TyTy Washington went down with an ankle injury just 8 minutes in and would not return. Even without their best player, U.K. would maintain a 4 point lead into halftime.
For Auburn, freshman sensation Jarbari Smith Jr. was held at bay for most of the game. He finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds. Auburns water carrier today, however, was sophomore transfer, Walker Kessler. He finished the day with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks. He is the the nations second leading shot blocker and his length proved to be difficult for Oscar and others at times.
Early in the second half, PG Sahvir Wheeler (17 points) once again got caught in a hard pick, the same type that injured him against LSU, and led to him being out for 5 crucial minutes where Kentucky went from up 2 to down 10. Much like the LSU game, once they lost TyTy and Wheeler, the offense lost all identity. They struggled to get open looks and turnovers became more regular. Oscar (16 points and 14 rebounds), Grady (17 points), and Mintz (5 points) did all they could to keep them in the game but came up short. It is also worth mentioning that Kentucky shot 10 free throws compared to Auburns 29. I don't ever solely blame the refs for the outcome of a game (unless its on a final play), but it is curious.
Overall, given the circumstances, I believe the Cats played very well and proved that they are a top-5 type team (The AP Poll is a joke). There is a case to be made that if TyTy stays healthy, Kentucky possibly comes away with a win, and a convincing one at that. When he was injured he had 4 points, Kentucky lost by 9 (80-71). If you don't believe he could have finished with 14+ points and been the difference in the game then you haven't seen much of him this year. I also do NOT believe that Auburn is the better team. I may not say that Kentucky is better than them either but they are at least equals. On a neutral-court when U.K. stays healthy, it is my belief, and probably the belief of most, that the outcome of this game is much different.
So, congrats on your January National Championship, Auburn. You really showed the status of your program when you camped out the night before and celebrated like you did for a team ranked 10 spots lower than you at home. I thought stuff like that was only for programs like Indiana, but when success is rare, I wont begrudge acting out, so enjoy yourselves. But like I said, I guess thats what happens when Kentucky comes to town. Be sure to use #TheKentuckyEffect when you post those celebration pictures.
Unless something crazy happens, Auburn will more than likely win the regular season SEC Championship. Kentucky still has a gauntlet of tough games, now through February, left in the SEC, home and away. Auburn on the other hand, has approximately... let me check the numbers... 0 tough SEC road games and I want to know how Bruce Pearl pulled that off. Either way, this Kentucky team believes they can and will beat this Tiger team. We will see you in Tampa, Auburn.