Cats hope to overpower depleted Tigers

Jeff Lebo needs a doctor. Not your regular M.D. with a corner office in downtown Auburn, Ala.

With only seven scholarship players and just one starter taller than 6-foot-5, Auburn’s head coach needs someone more powerful than a doctor. Lebo needs a miracle worker.

For a team that was already picked to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers have experienced a hoard of bad news this season. But facing a UK squad that has had its fair share of injury issues as well, Lebo is expecting no letup from the Cats.

“(UK’s) short-handed is usually different than Auburn’s short-handed,” Lebo said. “They’ve had guys out, but we’ve got to have guys out for very long periods of time.”

All of that appears to be good news for freshman forward Patrick Patterson and the UK offense.

Patterson, who leads UK with 17.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, will face an Auburn team that ranks dead last in the SEC in field goal defense, blocked shots and total rebounds.

During his weekly teleconference Monday afternoon, Lebo acknowledged that he had no idea how the Tigers would stop Patterson.

“(Patterson is) pretty scary,” Lebo said. “He’s constantly working, he’s constantly putting you in predicaments, whether you’re going to play in front of him, whether you’re going to play behind him. That’s an area of concern for us.”

But stopping Patterson won’t be Auburn’s only problem.

A lack of size has turned Auburn into a perimeter-oriented team on offense, and Lebo said Auburn’s scoring is now predicated on slashing to the basket and getting to the foul line or getting hot and firing 3-pointers. But Auburn doesn’t do either all that well.

Only South Carolina has attempted fewer than Auburn’s 351 free throws, and at 64.1 percent, the Tigers are 10th in the SEC in free throw percentage. And though Auburn is second in the conference in field goal percentage, the Tigers are eighth in 3-point shooting at just 35 percent.

The Cats have found a perimeter offense themselves, making 14-of-25 3-point attempts in the past two games, including 8-of-11 from senior guard Joe Crawford. That appears to be more bad news for the Tigers, who rank 11th in the SEC in 3-point defense.

With Auburn’s lack of size inside and its struggles to defend the ball outside, head coach Billy Gillispie said the Cats need to exploit both weaknesses to fully take advantage of either.

“I think those go together,” Gillispie said. “The reason we’ve started making more shots is … we’re getting the ball inside. I think that’s why we’ve been shooting the ball better is because we’re playing inside-out just a little bit better.”

Auburn has suffered from an assortment of problems, from academic issues to injuries and medical conditions that have ravaged its roster and left Lebo reeling. Four of the five front-line players Lebo expected to have before this season aren’t playing, a problem that’s changed the Tigers’ game plan almost entirely.

“Our whole front line is gone,” Lebo said. “Defensively and around the rim area, we can’t alter a lot of things there.”

Auburn’s roster troubles started in the fall, when recruit Tyrell Lynch, a forward, failed to qualify academically and never enrolled at Auburn. Then, Josh Dollard and Boubacar Sylla were forced to take redshirts because of injuries, and forward Korvoteny Barber, the team’s leading scorer, hasn’t played since Dec. 29 due to a broken hand.

With both teams facing injury problems, Gillispie said his team must come out and match Auburn’s intensity. But Auburn has lost 22 of the past 23 meetings with UK, and despite UK’s shortcomings this season, Lebo noted that the name on the front of the jersey still carries weight.

“They’re still Kentucky,” Lebo said. “They’re still finding ways to win.”