By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — The stakes will be high when Kentucky takes on Auburn Saturday.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats (23-5, 13-2 Southeastern Conference) can clinch the league’s regular-season title and claim the top seed for the upcoming conference tournament with a win over the Tigers with three games remaining in the regular season.
Clinching a 49th SEC title has been a topic of discussion for the Wildcats this week.
“It’s been brought up, but we just gotta take it a game at a time,” Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans said Friday. “We’ve got the SEC Tournament coming up. Got the NCAA Tournament coming up. Those are big things ahead. We got a big game that we gotta focus on Saturday and we just gotta try to lock in.”
Hagans also said clinching the SEC title is “just another step” but also “be another great goal that we come across.”
“We gotta try to win a tournament and try to win another tournament,” the sophomore guard said. That’s just the goals we got and what we’re trying to work for.”
Although clinching the SEC title is a priority, improving the team’s NCAA Tournament resume also is a point of emphasis for the Wildcats.
“Our whole thing is, how do we get the best seed we can get? Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “If that means win games, just keep winning so you have a good seed. That’s the whole thing here — It’s not — conference tournament, I know people get mad and our fans go there. It’s almost an obligation because so many of them go to the tournament, but the whole point for me is, that tournament you’re playing three games back-to-back-to-back. I mean, what does it really do?
“If you’ve got to win the games to get a good seed, win the games. But, the reality of it is, our season is about building toward March, being prepared for every kind of team that we can play.”
Hagans added the Wildcats aren’t looking to make a statement against Auburn, which also defeated Kentucky 77-71 in overtime in the NCAA Regional finals last year to earn the school’s first appearance in the Final Four.
“We don’t have too much to prove to (anybody),” Hagans said. “(We’ve) just gotta go out there, play as a team and just try to get the win and do something good.”
Auburn, ranked 15th this week, has won two in a over the Wildcats , including a 76-66 victory at home on Feb. 1. The Tigers (24-4, 11-4) have won just twice in Kentucky, with the last rare victory coming on Jan. 9, 1988 when it dealt the Wildcats a 53-52 setback at Rupp Arena.
In the first meeting between the two teams earlier this season, Calipari cited his team’s lack of toughness as a big reason behind the 10-point setback. Since than, the Wildcats have won seven straight, including a 69-60 victory over Texas A&M earlier this week at College Station.
Calipari said a key for the Wildcats will be to match Auburn’s intensity and approach on both ends of the court.
“You better play lower than them and they get down,” Calipari said. “You better know that they’ll wedge you under the goal or they’ll, on block-outs, they’re not afraid to bump and do stuff. Their guard play, they run downhill, we run downhill. We’re playing kind of similar in that.”
Kentucky freshman guard Johnny Juzang is expecting a different outcome this time around.
“I think we’re going to come out and try to be the aggressor,” he said. “Definitely start the game with a lot of energy and try to keep that up. I think rebounding was a big thing for us the last game, so that’s a big area of improvement. I think it was just a tough night the last time we played them. I don’t think it will happen twice.”
* * *
Gametracker: Auburn at Kentucky, 3:45 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.