By LARRY VAUGHT
Give Auburn coach Bruce Pearl credit — he was on the Kentucky bandwagon early this season and has never wavered.
He praised the Cats before his team played them, bragged on UK after the Cats won at Auburn and was highly complimentary again going into Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Once the Cats beat his team 80-53 with a dominant performance, Pearl really got on a roll praising UK and said there were several reasons UK was playing so well.
“One, I know a lot of the kids on this team. We had EJ (Montgomery) committed for a while. We had recruited Ashton (Hagans) hard for a number of years. We were one of the first ones to offer Keldon (Johnson) when he was a sophomore. I spent years in Milwaukee, so I knew a lot about Tyler (Herro). PJ (Washington) went to the same high school as (Auburn senior) Horace Spencer, so I’ve seen him develop,” Pearl said.
However, then Pearl made a point about UK that is becoming more and more apparent — and was a lot like what Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield said about the Cats before the Vols played at Rupp arena.
“I think the biggest thing is John (Calipari) always has great players and great talent, but he has to spend a lot of time getting them to become great teammates and play together as a group. These guys are all winners. These guys are all great competitors. There’s a little difference,” Pearl said. “You see how they all compete, how they share the ball, and you see how much better they’ve gotten.”
That led to basically what is a recruiting pitch for Calipari and Kentucky basketball that could be used to help show five-star Keion Brooks, who is deciding between UK and Indiana, and others why UK is the right spot for them to play college basketball.
“EJ Montgomery has gotten a lot better. When you come to Kentucky, you’re going to get a lot better. It’s impressive. Ashton has gotten a lot better. I’m not surprised that they’re this good,” Pearl said.
He was surprised that Auburn could not compete the final 23 minutes in a game Pearl thought the Tigers had a chance to win.
“We were physically overwhelmed. Two weeks ago on the road at LSU, we got manhandled. Here today, we got manhandled in a different way. It wasn’t just second-chance points, it was their defense,” Pearl said. “Kentucky is one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“That speaks about their character, competitive spirit, and being winners. They’re not just great individual defenders. Tyler Herro, maybe coming in, players thought that they can just take him off the bounce and drive it downhill. Heck, Keldon, at his size, trying to play guard is impressive. They’ve improved in that area.
“They compete, and they stay in front of you. As a result, they took a pretty good offensive team in Auburn and made us look really bad.”
Really bad indeed!