Auburn gears up for final stretch, makes pivotal trip to Kentucky

Auburn gears up for final stretch, makes pivotal trip to Kentucky

AUBURN, Ala. – Most of the players on Auburn’s team have not played at Rupp Arena or have not played there with the place at full capacity. The Tigers last went to Kentucky in 2021 during the COVID season. Before that, it was 2020. Only a handful of players from that team are still on this year’s roster. 

None of the players were alive when Auburn last won at Kentucky. 1988. 

Head coach Bruce Pearl will make sure his team is aware of that fact heading into Saturday’s matchup. It’s another chance to make history. But he will also remind them that the Tigers have won four of the last six in the series since beating the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and that they have played Kentucky as well as anybody in the SEC during that span. 

“I want them to have confidence,” Pearl said. “We respect Kentucky, we respect their history, and I’m very proud that we’ve been competitive with Kentucky. That’s what you’ve got to do when you’re in the SEC.”

With just over a week remaining in the regular season, this year’s Auburn team is 19-9 overall and tied for fourth in the SEC at 9-6. However, the Tigers face a brutal three-game stretch to close out the year with road trips to Kentucky and Alabama before coming home to face the Vols. Win one, and you likely lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. 

“As we sit here with three games to go in the regular season, to be tied with fourth with Tennessee, on the one hand it demonstrates that this team has been competitive,” Pearl said. “At the same time, we look at our schedule – we’ve got a tough road ahead.” 

First up on that road is Kentucky at Rupp Arena. No small task. 

“It’s going to take a lot (to win Saturday),” senior guard Zep Jasper said. “I look at Kentucky as one of the best teams in the conference. They came in here last year with a hostile environment and lost. I would expect those guys to come out and play hard. As a team, we’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to play tougher. It’s one of those games we have to win.”

“We’re one of the top 20 teams in the country as far as defense, so the key is just staying down, making sure we guard and try to hold them under 70,” senior Allen Flanigan said. 

Auburn and Kentucky will tip off at 3 p.m. CT from Rupp Arena in Lexington. Andy Burcham and Joe Ciampi will have the radio call on 93.9 Tiger FM, online at AuburnTigers.com and on the TuneIn app. The game will be televised on CBS. 

Wendell Green Jr. (1) during the game between the Ole Miss Rebels and the  Auburn Tigers at Nevile Arena in Auburn, AL on Wednesday, Feb 22, 2023.Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

PLAYER TO WATCH: WENDELL GREEN JR.

For the fourth time in conference play, Auburn’s floor general Wendell Green Jr. scored 20 or more points with 23 in Wednesday’s win over Ole Miss. He sealed the game with four straight free throws and finished 11 of 12 from the charity stripe for the game. It was the sixth 20-point game of the season for Green and the 18th of his career. Last year, National Freshman of the Year Jabari Smith had seven 20-point outings in SEC play. 

INSIDE THE SERIES: KENTUCKY

Kentucky leads 96-23 in the all-time series with Auburn, but the Tigers have won four of the last six meetings between the two schools, including a 77-71 victory in the 2019 Elite Eight to secure the first Final Four appearance in program history. 

Auburn has only beaten Kentucky twice on its home court. The last time was 35 years ago in what was arguably the biggest upset in program history. The Tigers, led by head coach Sonny Smith, took down No. 1 Kentucky 53-52 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 9, 1988. 

Six of Auburn’s 23 all-time victories versus Kentucky have occurred during the Bruce Pearl Era (2014-present). It’s the second most of any head coach in program history behind Smith, who led the Tigers to seven wins over the Wildcats from 1978-89.

BIG MEN ON CAMPUS

Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe (15 in 26 games) and Auburn big man Johni Broome (9 in 27 games) currently rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the SEC in double-doubles. Broome, a first-year transfer from Morehead State, has recorded 45 career double-double performances – tied for fifth nationally in Division I. Tshiebwe is No. 2 with 55. 

In conference play, Broome is averaging a team-best 15.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest for the Tigers. In 2020, he made his collegiate debut at Kentucky while still at Morehead State. He finished with 11 points and five rebounds. 

NEARING 20 WINS …

Auburn and Kentucky are each one win away from recording back-to-back 20-win seasons. For Auburn, the Tigers have finished with 20 wins in four of the last five seasons. One more win would make it five out of the last six and 14 all-time in program history. Head coach Bruce Pearl (4) boasts the most 20-win seasons of any head coach in Auburn history.