AUBURN, Ala. (WDRB) – The key number for the University of Kentucky basketball team, in more than one way, is three.
The Wildcats are a good and improving basketball team. But they have played the season largely in the shadow of a blowout loss to Duke in the season-opener. Late-December wins over North Carolina and Louisville helped begin to diminish that shadow.
Over the next three games, No. 12-ranked Kentucky has a chance to redefine itself, on its own terms, with three chances against ranked opponents – at No. 14 Auburn and at home against No. 24 Mississippi State and No. 7 Kansas. Win those, and UK is back in the Top 10 with a bullet, a team on the rise with February on the horizon.
But to begin that stretch, Kentucky will have to win in a place it has lost back-to-back games and hasn’t won since 2014. And the theme for Saturday’s 4 p.m. ESPN matchup with Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team will be threes. As in, don’t allow them.
“They are going to shoot 35 of them," Calipari said. "If you really guard them and you really guard the three, they are going to shoot 35 of them. They do it off the bounce, they do it off the catch, they do it in transition, and they do it in pick-and-rolls.”
That’s not an equation Calipari likes. He generally likes to fight fire with fire. But when the opponent is firing three-pointers, he doesn’t like the math, given that his own team generates just 22 percent of its scoring from beyond the arc.
"We're going to play and do some things against a team that's shooting 35 threes and if they make 20 – what's the next game?” Calipari said. “They're shooting them whether you're on them, hanging on them, they're shooting them. Long rebounds matter in this game. I like to press a pressing team. I like to drive a driving team. I'm not so apt to shoot the thee with the three-point shooting team."
Auburn is a dangerous streak-shooting team, and it feeds off making threes. In a charged environment, every three feeds into a frenzy. The Tigers take 46 percent of their shots from three-point range, and have shot 30 or more in 10 of their 16 games. They’re led in the effort by Bryce Brown, who is the school’s career-leader in three-pointers, is averaging five per game and shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc in SEC play. As a team Auburn is making better than 13 threes a game in SEC play and their 10.9 per game on the season rank fifth nationalliy and first among Power 5 teams.
The numbers point to a proverbial gasoline-on-the-fire proposition. Kentucky has given up just better than 36 percent shooting from three-point range, 270th in the nation, though the Wildcats have been better over the past two games.
In preparation for Auburn, Calipari has been trying to make his three-point defense better still – in a hurry.
“Coach has been emphasizing limiting threes," Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro said. “He gave us a few ways, putting our hands up early, so the shooter sees our hands. It makes the shooter think a little bit before he shoots. Just putting our hand up early and getting out to shooters. . . . Having a hand up early is going to be a key."
So will chasing down the long rebounds. Auburn ranks first among Power 5 teams nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, a stat where Kentucky ranks No. 4. The Tigers, however, haven’t been nearly as good on the defensive glass as Kentucky has been.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and Calipari go back a ways. They’ve met four times when both have had ranked teams, and have split the games 2-2.
Auburn enters the game in need of a signature win, having lost to Duke, North Carolina State and Ole Miss. The Tigers’ best quality wins have come over Murray State, Washington and Arizona.
While Calipari is casting a wary eye on the perimeter, Pearl says he’s concerned with Kentucky’s inside game, behind P.J. Washington and Reid Travis, and how his team will stand up to a physical challenge.
“Kentucky’s really big and really physical,” he said. “They’re going to go inside early. Washington and Reid on the block are absolute men and monsters.”
Pearl is hoping to generate turnovers by Kentucky, but says that the Wildcats young backcourt will provide a challenge for his guards.
As for Kentucky, Calipari is just hoping to see improvement. The team has been trending upward, with a conference-opening loss at Alabama the only blemish since the win over North Carolina.
“This is a work in progress, it really is," Calipari said. "Trying to get guys to conquer themselves first, you can't feel pressed about your performance. You've got to lose yourself in the team. What does the team need you to do has got to come before what you're trying to do or what you think you need to do. That's going to be an ongoing thing. We'll all know. You'll be able to see it when you say, 'They've blended, man. They're engaged with each other. They're doing it for 40 minutes.' We're not there yet. But what’s the date? Is it still January? We’re good. We’re fine."
A few wins over the next week, and most people would agree that the Wildcats are better than that.
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