By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
On the first day of February, the Cats lost to Auburn 75-66 in Auburn, Alabama, and on the last day of February, these team meet again, this time in Rupp Arena. Since that loss, the Cats have run the table with seven consecutive wins while Auburn needed overtime to win its next three consecutive games before dropping back to back games at Missouri and at Georgia.
As a result, the Cats enter Saturday’s rematch protecting a 2 game lead over Auburn with only 3 games remaining on the regular season schedule. No one else in the SEC can overtake the Cats in the regular season since Florida, playing with 5 SEC losses, handed LSU their 5 th SEC loss on Wednesday this week. Therefore, any combination of one UK win and one Auburn loss over the next 3 games will deliver the SEC regular season championship to the Cats, and with a win on Saturday, the race will be over.
In the alternative, a loss to Auburn on Saturday will send the race into the final week of the season with Auburn one game behind with two games to play. On the final Saturday, Kentucky must travel to Florida and Auburn must travel to Tennessee. The complexity of that possibility leaves little doubt that the Cats need to take care of business this Saturday, and then play out the final two games only to further sharpen its game leading into the post season.
AUBURN brings its 24-4, 11-4 record into the Saturday afternoon’s encounter with the Cats. Since beating the Cats four weeks ago, Auburn has struggled. The game before beating the Cats, Auburn needed 2 overtimes to put #98 Mississippi away, and in the three games after beating Kentucky, Auburn needed an overtime period in each of these games to win at #39 Arkansas by 3, beat #37 LSU by 1, and beat #46 Alabama by 4. Then Auburn dropped their last two road games, at #89 Missouri by 12 and at #96 Georgia by 10. The Tigers have won their last two game, both at home over #59 Tennessee by 7 and #98 Mississippi by 9. Auburn’s average ANE over these seven games since they beat the Cats has been 0.14 ppp.
In contrast, the Cats’ average ANE since the Auburn loss has been an nice 0.26 ppp. Kentucky brings a seven-game winning streak into this game. After losing at #36 Auburn, the Cats have beaten #50 Mississippi State by 8 (0.21 ppp Game ANE), #59 Tennessee by 13 (0.41 ppp Game ANE), #157 Vanderbilt by 14 (0.29 ppp Game ANE), #98 Mississippi by 5 (0.11 ppp Game ANE), #37 LSU by 3 (0.29 ppp Game ANE), #34 Florida by 6 (0.23 ppp Game ANE), and #152 Texas A&M by 9 (0.24 ppp Game ANE), which is an average ANE of 0.26 ppp over these last seven games.
AUBURN’s season ANE of 0.190 ppp against a schedule strength of 0.083 ppp and an average tempo of 70.6 possessions per game. Kentucky’s season ANE of 0.210 ppp against a schedule strength of 0.079 ppp at an average tempo of 68.8. The ANE analysis based on these season profiles points to an 5 point Kentucky win, 74-69 in a game played with 70 possessions. However, based on the way each of these teams have played since their first meeting, the Cats figure to be about 12 points better than Auburn at the present time.