(5) Auburn vs. (2) Kentucky
Initial Thoughts: Fire departments around America are on high alert after Friday night, when the Auburn Tigers put on one of the most impressive postseason shooting displays in college hoop history. Plenty of analysts (including this misguided writer) thought that Carolina would take care of business, although credit to Matt: his central worry about the Heels was their inability to close out on shooters (evidenced by their lazy closeouts against Iona in round 1), and…yeah, let’s just say that was a disaster. The Tigers hit an astounding 17 threes, racing past UNC and into the Elite Eight, where they’ll play for a Final Four appearance against…
Kentucky! The Wildcats barely survived against Houston thanks to a late PJ Washington block and a Tyler Herro three. When these two last met on February 23rd, Kentucky thoroughly destroyed Auburn, a game that saw the Wildcats up by 30 for nearly all of the second half. Auburn is playing far better at this stage, though, and I would not expect another blowout in Kansas City.
Auburn on Offense: Hide your wives, hide your children, hide anything you hold dear. The Tigers rained a firestorm from hell onto UNC’s balky perimeter defense on Friday night, and John Calipari surely realizes the repercussions of leaving any Auburn shooters open. Crucially, the Tigers’ best big, Chuma Okeke, tore his ACL in the Sweet 16, and although he’s not irreplaceable, his blend of size and shooting was a key element to the Tiger attack.
Kentucky should offer far more perimeter resistance than UNC, especially after the Wildcats’ lengthy trio of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson largely shut down Houston’s Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks, prolific scorers in their own right. Hagans will hound point guard Jared Harper everywhere he goes, and Johnson/Herro offer plenty of length to combat Bryce Brown’s quick trigger.
Auburn will do everything in its power to speed the game up, hoping that quick shots and pushing in transition will influence a young Kentucky team into playing at the Tigers’ pace. The more Auburn can play in the open floor, the better chance they’ll have.
Kentucky on Offense: Kentucky’s rim-centric attack offers a major contrast to Auburn’s “bombs away” approach, as the ‘Cats rarely dabble beyond the three-point line (344th in 3PA rate) and instead focus on playing through their big men. PJ Washington and Reid Travis have an impressive chemistry in the paint, with both showing an ability to find his “buddy” when opponents send double-teams. Outside of Austin Wiley, Auburn’s bigs lack bulk, meaning Bruce Pearl may need to send doubles and force Kentucky to beat them from the perimeter.
Calipari will rely on Herro and Johnson to provide what little spacing the Wildcats will have, although Kentucky did receive a surprising boost from Immanuel Quickley on Friday, who hit two threes against the Cougars. When Kentucky blew out the Tigers in February, the ‘Cats hit 11/24 from long range, and if they’re knocking shots down in addition to likely dominating the paint, this one will be similarly ugly.
Key Factor(s): It seems simple, but it comes down to Auburn’s shooting. The Tigers hit just 8 of 27 threes in the late February trouncing, and if they’re cold in this one, Kentucky could run away with it thanks to their interior advantage. If they’re hot like they were on Friday, though, the Tigers can play with anyone in the country. Kentucky will attempt to slow the game down, hoping to limit Auburn’s open looks and force them to hit more difficult shots in the half court.
Final Predictions: Despite the loss of Okeke, Auburn still offers an impressive offensive arsenal and a plethora of athleticism on the frontline with which to combat Kentucky. Auburn has also been tremendous at dictating tempo in this tournament, and although Kentucky will try to slow the game down, Harper and Brown are uniquely equipped to push the pace. Despite all that, though, Kentucky has too much of an advantage in the paint for the Tigers to keep this one within a possession or two.