Alumnus Charles Barkley called it “the greatest day in Auburn basketball history.”
For Kentucky, it was an upset. For Big Blue Nation, it was painful. And for most of the college basketball world, it was downright shocking.
Outside of the citizens of Auburn, Alabama, I’m not sure anyone expected the Elite Eight matchup between the Tigers and Wildcats to turn out the way it did. Even then, some of those most die-hard Auburn fans couldn’t have been convinced their team would topple the perennial king of the SEC. The king who had come into Auburn Arena and defeated them ten weeks before. The king who beat them by nearly 30 points just five weeks – thirty-six days! – prior.
Alas, that’s the story of March. One team’s Cinderella season becomes its best ever, and the other is left sickened, missing another golden opportunity to add to its illustrious legacy.
Despite it being the first meeting since that overtime game, revenge won’t be on Kentucky’s mind when it heads into Auburn to face the Tigers on Saturday. Last season is in the rearview.
“I wouldn’t say payback, just more of looking forward to a really good game,” said Immanuel Quickley, who played 19 minutes in that NCAA Tournament contest. “Auburn’s a really good team… they’ve won a lot of games… we just gotta be locked in and hopefully get a win.”
The Wildcats’ arrival has brought another milestone for the Tigers basketball program: its first College GameDay visit. While the pregame show has been in town for football, it had never been on campus for a basketball game. The two teams are battling for position among the top of the SEC standings for the second straight year, and it is expected to be another rambunctious atmosphere. Luckily for Kentucky, it has experience dealing with those rowdy road crowds.
“All our away games have been really good,” Quickley said. “Every environment so far has been really good. I don’t think Auburn will disappoint.”
The Tigers return five players who saw time in the Elite Eight, including guards Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick. They have replaced Bryce Brown and Jared Harper as the starting guards for head coach Bruce Pearl, and are performing admirably. Doughty leads the team in points per game (14.8) while McCormick leads in assists (93, 4.7 per game) and also averages double figure points (11.1).
Center Austin Wiley has improved drastically, which makes his one-on-one battle with Nick Richards enticing on both ends. He is up three points and rebounds per game from last season, and leads the team in blocks.
Freshman forward Isaac Okoro is the second leading scorer, averaging 12.9 points. Forwards Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy also play key roles and are each 6-foot-7, while Okoro is 6-foot-6. Kentucky loves to have their main three guards – Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Quickley - on the floor together, but the Tigers typically play two guards at a time. Quickley has experience guarding bigger players – such as Jordan Nwora, the 6-foot-7 Louisville star he spent a lot of time on back in December – and will likely be doing more of it throughout the evening.
Guards Jamal Johnson, Allen Flanagan and Devan Cambridge have each appeared in every game and played consistent time, rounding out the nine-man rotation.
The two schools are pretty evenly matched, with Auburn’s four more points per game effectively canceled out by Kentucky’s four fewer points allowed per game. They are neck-and-neck in many other statistical areas as well. The game will likely come down to rebounding. The Wildcats are 14-0 when they snag more boards than their opponent, but the Tigers average three more per game. It wouldn’t be shocking if a late offensive rebound led to the deciding points.
College GameDay live from Auburn Arena begins at 11:00 a.m. ET on ESPN. Tip for the game is set for 6:00 p.m. ET. Both events can also be seen on the ESPN app.