Kentucky heads down to the Plains for date with No. 2 Auburn


Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (0) and guard TyTy Washington Jr. (3) talk to forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the UK vs. Tennessee basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 107-79. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

On Saturday, Jan. 22, the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats will look to re-insert their name at the top of the conference they once ruled.

Awaiting the Cats will be the No. 2 Auburn Tigers. Led by head coach Bruce Pearl, the Tigers boast an impressive 17-1 record and stand undefeated in SEC play at 6-0.

Pearl, who is in his eighth season under the helm at Auburn, has crafted a powerhouse down south that has the possibility to rival the 2018-19 Tigers team that reached the NCAA Final Four.

Led by future NBA Draft lottery pick Jabari Smith and a mix of transfers and returnees, Auburn has outshot, outrebounded and outhustled its opponents en route to its stellar record.

Part of Auburn’s success comes from the Tigers’ depth. Pearl’s bench runs deep, as 11 different players average at least 10 minutes played a game, while no one averages more than 28 minutes on the court per night.

In comparison, Kentucky has just eight players who average double-digit minutes per game, while four of UK’s five starters average over 29 minutes a contest.

Smith leads the way for the Tigers, averaging 16.1 points a night to go along with 6.2 rebounds, a pair of assists, a steal and a block a game. The 6-foot-10 freshman out of Fayetteville, Georgia, is the highest-ranked recruit in school history.

While the five-star forward has stolen the show in the Heart of Dixie, a trio of transfers provide quite the supporting cast.

The starting backcourt for the Tigers consists of a pair of transfers in Wendell Green Jr and KD Johnson.

Green, a sophomore, made the jump from Eastern Kentucky after earning First Team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors as a freshman. Since joining Auburn, Green hasn’t skipped a beat, averaging 13.2 points per game and a team-best 4.7 assists.

Johnson, like Kentucky point guard Sahvir Wheeler, jumped ship from Georgia following his freshman season in Athens. Averaging 12.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a team-best 2.3 steals, Johnson plays the role of sparkplug and Swiss Army knife for the Tigers.

In the frontcourt, North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler has been a force down low. 10 points and 7.5 rebounds a night doesn’t hold a candle to Kessler’s 4.1 blocks per game, good enough for second-best in the nation.

The talent doesn’t stop there for the Tigers, as fellow projected first-round pick Allen Flanigan headlines the returnees from last season. After returning from injury in late December, Flanigan has brought over seven points and three rebounds a game to the table in his limited availability.

While Auburn presents size, efficiency and depth, the Wildcats will have the tools to match on Saturday.

TyTy Washington Jr and Wheeler will cause their fair share of problems in the backcourt on Saturday.

Wheeler’s 7.3 assists per game lands him at third in the nation in dimes, while Washington is top two on the team in every major statistic. Washington has been on a tear as of late, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors four weeks in a row.

The dominance of Oscar Tshiebwe is nearly unrivaled. The West Virginia transfer leads the nation in rebounds per game, hauling in 14.9 boards per game, while his 16.5 points per game leads all Wildcats.

Alongside Kellan Grady’s top-15 3-point shooting percentage, Keion Brooks Jr’s 10.6 points a night and the increasing bench production from Davion Mintz, Kentucky has whittled its rotation down to produce an efficient group that averages the sixth-most points per game in the nation.

Saturday’s game will host a bulk of intriguing matchups. Can Auburn withstand the firepower of Kentucky’s offense? Will Kentucky be able to contain Jabari Smith? Can Tshiebwe record his usual monster stat line against Kessler? Which backcourt will reign supreme?

The task that awaits the Wildcats is a daunting one, traveling to the home gym of the hottest team in the country.

Dating back to the 2017-18 season, no team in the SEC has won more games than Auburn.

While Kentucky has dominated Auburn in the all-time series, winning 96 out of 118 games, the teams have split the last 10 meetings.

Kentucky’s longtime dominance of the SEC has taken a hit due to the arrival of teams such as Auburn. If the Wildcats wish to wear the SEC crown once again, they will need a statement victory down on the Plains.

The Wildcats and Tigers are set to square off inside Auburn Arena on Saturday, Jan. 22, at 1 p.m. E.S.T.