Across the By(Line): Auburn Tigers


Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) chases after a rebound during the UK vs. Central Michigan men’s basketball game on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 85-57. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

The “Across the (By)Line” series will give Kentucky basketball fans an in-depth look at their opponent for this week — from the mind of the opposing school’s sports editor.

This week: Henry Zimmer, The Auburn Plainsman, Auburn University.

Auburn’s Walker Kessler vs. UK’s Oscar Tshiebwe is likely the most important matchup in the game on Saturday. What do you see happening between those two down low?

Zimmer: We’re trying to figure out if Walker Kessler is good at basketball, or if he’s just 7-foot-3, which is a big distinction. Kessler is 7-foot-3, but he’s learning to play basketball at a high level. He’s able to get you a triple-double, but he’s still a sophomore and I think he’s really a freshman mentally. He takes a lot of things with a laugh, whereas a lot of the other guys on the team are very stoic, very serious, I’m not sure that Kessler is there yet. If he gets pushed around, he’s done, you’re owning him. If guards can bully him down low, he’s definitely susceptible to getting bullied by guys like Tshiebwe. If Kentucky employs the strategy to just attack Kessler immediately, then it’s Kentucky’s game to lose.

Auburn basketball has turned a corner. A National Championship seems within reach, do you think that that is the limit for this team? Have the fans bought into this team?

Zimmer: Football is an afterthought in Auburn nowadays. It is all basketball, it’s what has taken over the city and the fan base. When the 2018 team got to the Final Four, that’s the line. You can beat Kansas, you can beat Kentucky, you can beat the blue blood teams you aren’t supposed to beat. Bruce Pearl is building something here. Say what you will about Bruce morally, or if you like him on the sideline, but he is building a program that kids want to play for, for exposure, and he’s putting kids in the NBA year after year. The students gravitate towards that, they want to go to games and see someone like Jabari Smith. I think basketball is a serious, legitimate sport at Auburn.

Is containing Jabari Smith an option for Kentucky on Saturday? Or do the Wildcats need to try and handle the supporting cast surrounding him?

Zimmer: Smith is going to get his buckets. Alabama tried to contain him, and that only makes it worse. When you try and put your best defender on him, it doesn’t matter, he’s bigger than you, he’s got a smoother shot than you. He’s getting his [points]. Limit Wendell Green Jr, limit Walker Kessler, and then you kind of nullify Smith. It’s more, I think, about limiting other people, than it is about limiting him, because he’s the No. 1 overall pick in our eyes around here.

Auburn’s depth runs 11 players deep. Outside of Kessler versus Tshiebwe, what do you think is going to be the most important matchup or statistic on Saturday?

Zimmer: Pearl has said that he will always play 11 kids. The players he is going to play a majority of the game, Green, Zep Jasper, Smith, those type of guys, can you force them into turnovers that create points for Kentucky? I think that’s the big thing. They are very sound in keeping the ball with their team and not turning it over. If Kentucky’s guards can force just a couple of turnovers, because again, Smith is going to get his points, but where else can you steal points? I think that is through steals and turnovers, because Auburn, they’ll throw the ball around, they’re not scared. Sahvir Wheeler, if he can get four turnovers by himself, he can add that turnover to his assists, and there’s just a ton of points you’ve created right there, that you wouldn’t have normally.

What gameplan do you see Bruce Pearl running on Saturday, and what is your score prediction?

Zimmer: What do I think Bruce Pearl is going to do? I have no idea, to be quite honest with you, because I’m not sure that Bruce Pearl has any idea. I think you have to limit Tshiebwe in whatever way you can do it. Whether it’s double teaming him and just living with somebody else scoring, because right now he’s averaging 16.5 and 14.9, that’s nuts. So if you can limit one of those stats, I think you live with that. I think this game is going to be won down low. What big man can outperform the other big man and generate more points. Both teams score right at 80 [points] so it’s going to be a high-scoring game, maybe into the 90’s. I think this game will be close. 89-84 Auburn.