By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Auburn played a clean game against UK on Saturday, according to head coach Tony Barbee.
The Tigers had 29 personal fouls, an intentional foul, a flagrant foul and one player ejection.
Many adjectives could be used to describe the Cats’ 72-62 win at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Clean is not one of them.
The game was physical, competitive, spirited and some would even say unwatchable. But not clean.
UK freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein called the Tigers’ tactics “cheap.”
“There were playing real cheap. Every game is going to be like that from here out,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everyone wants to win. You have to do what you have to do to win.”
The Cats were sent to the free-throw line 38 times, the second most on the season.
The only game they exceeded that number of attempts was against Morehead State. That was the game so rough MSU head coach Sean Woods even shoved one of his own players.
“We have gotten used to it, and we use it to our advantage,” UK freshman forward Nerlens Noel said when asked about the physical play. “We are not a team that’s going to back down.”
Although it was slightly more prevalent Saturday against Auburn, the Cats have been on the receiving end of physical play during most of conference play.
In the past five SEC games, the Cats have been sent to the free-throw stripe an average of 33 times.
If the trend continues, Calipari may need to spend more time in practice working on foul shots. In each of those five games, the Cats have missed nine or more.
Beyond just the fouls, however, the game Saturday oft-times came precariously close to breaking into an all-out brawl.
UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin shoved Auburn freshman forward Jordon Granger after an Auburn missed free throw late in the first half.
Granger returned fire with what was ruled a flagrant 2 foul into Goodwin’s back. Referees intervened just as the two players began to square off and helped prevent the altercation from escalating.
Granger was ejected and Goodwin was assessed a technical foul.
“On film, you see Archie (Goodwin) push him first. If somebody did that to us, you’re going to swing on them, too,” Cauley-Stein said about the altercation. “It’s how the game is. You have to have that mindset.”
Auburn senior guard Frankie Sullivan provided another tense moment in the second half, as he slammed UK sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer to the ground on the breakaway layup attempt to earn an intentional foul.
“We knew they were going to try to be physical with us. We just had to try and fight back,” UK junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “There were a bunch of fouls each way. We just had to be tough. We have been working on getting tougher, so this was definitely a good test for us.”
For his part, Calipari defended Barbee and the play of the Tigers.
“Tony Barbee came in with an unbelievable game plan. Tony is not a good coach, he is a great coach,” Calipari said. “The game plan he put together today was, let’s be physical and then we’re going to change defenses because they’re a young team.”
He believes the Cats need to be able to play through contact and finish plays.
“They should all be fouls, but they’re not and that’s OK,” Calipari said. “So you play through it and you figure out how to play.”
Calipari also believed that contact goes uncalled too often and that the college game needs to be cleaned up.
“Call the fouls. Call the fouls,” Calipari said. “Call them all. Sixty, 70, call them all. Call them on us.”