AUBURN — Winning at Rupp Arena isn’t difficult. Well, unless you’re the visiting team. In that case, the odds are stacked heavily against you.
Kentucky has been quite good at winning in its home gym over the past 11 seasons, going is 167-10 since John Calipari became head coach in 2009. That’s a winning percentage of .944. The Wildcats have only lost one game there this season, and that was Nov. 12 against an Evansville team that has stumbled to 7-21 since.
The last SEC team to win in Rupp Arena was LSU on Feb. 12 of last year, and that game was marred by controversy after referees appeared to miss offensive goaltending on the visitors’ game-winning tip-in. Kentucky won eight straight conference home games before that and has won 11 straight since.
One of those wins, on Feb. 23 of last year, came over Auburn by the lopsided score of 80-53. That was the Tigers’ 17th straight loss at Rupp Arena, dating back to their last win Jan. 9, 1988 — Sonny Smith’s second-to-last season as head coach. They’re 2-28 in that building and 2-48 all-time in Lexington.
“I think last year’s game, we felt like we would go up there and win. We had a lot of confidence going in, so we obviously underestimated them, I guess — the amount of talent they had coming in and how good they play at home,” senior center Anfernee McLemore said. “This year we are going in there not expecting any calls from the refs and expecting every shot to go their way. We are ready to play hard and try to come out with a win.”
No. 15 Auburn can beat No. 8 Kentucky. It is doing so at a higher rate than it ever has before. After losing 18 straight games in the series from 2001-15, the Tigers have won four of the last seven under Bruce Pearl, including the last two in a row — 77-71 in the NCAA tournament region finals last season, and 75-66 in Auburn Arena on Feb. 1 of this year.
Auburn (24-4, 11-4 SEC) has never won three straight games in the series, which dates back to 1921. But it will have to on Saturday (2:45 p.m., CBS) if it wants to keep alive any hope of winning the SEC regular-season championship — Kentucky (23-5, 13-2) has won seven straight games since losing to the Tigers and has a two-game lead in the standings with three games to play, so a win on its home floor would clinch the title outright.
“I think they’re the best team in our league,” Pearl said. “Kentucky is absolutely in the driver’s seat. They’re one home win against Auburn away from being conference champions. And they’re 48-2 in the last 50 times playing us there. It’s a monumental task to try to beat them there, so it’s going to take special."
Here are some things the Tigers need to do to make a little more of that history Pearl is always talking about:
1. Make some shots early
Auburn did make its first shot in Rupp Arena last season. Then, it missed nine of its next 11. It didn’t make a 3-pointer until there was 8:47 left in the first half. It trailed by as many as 19 points before halftime.
The Tigers have had similar struggles this season. They have trailed in the first half of all seven SEC road games to date — Mississippi State by nine, Alabama by 14, Florida by seven, Ole Miss by 18, Arkansas 11, Missouri by 13 and Georgia by nine.
2. Get scoring contributions from the bench
When the Tigers are able to get sparks from players like McLemore, Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams off the bench is “when we play best,” Pearl said. Their record shows that — they’re 21-1 when they get at least 15 points from their bench, and 3-3 when they don’t.
All three of those losses in the latter category have come on the road. That’s where freshmen Cambridge, Williams and Allen Flanigan, in particular, have struggled. Those three players combined to score 10 points total in back-to-back losses at Missouri and Georgia. Back at home this for the past two games, they combined to score 22 and 14 points, respectively, in wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss.
3. Win the battle inside
This was one of the biggest harbingers of Auburn’s victory over Kentucky earlier this month. Nick Richards came to the Plains as a leading SEC Player of the Year candidate after averaging 16.9 points on 65.3 percent shooting and 9.3 rebounds through the early part of SEC play.
Against Wiley and McLemore, he scored only seven points on 3-for-8 shooting and totaled seven rebounds despite playing 38 minutes. Power forward EJ Montgomery did even less, scoring just two points as foul trouble limited him to 17 minutes. The Tigers outscored the Wildcats 24-18 in the paint, with Wiley scoring 12 of those points on 4-for-6 shooting. He also had 10 of the home team’s 42 rebounds, which was 14 more than the visitors had.
4. Slow down Immanuel Quickley
It’s a good thing Okoro is back from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for three games, because to beat Kentucky, Pearl said, a team needs three good defensive guards. The Wildcats have three really good offensive guards — Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Quickley.
The Tigers slowed down the former last time, holding him to just five points before he fouled out in 21 minutes. But Maxey scored 22 points and Quickley poured in 23. The latter is playing as well, if not better, than anybody in the conference right now, averaging 25.6 points on 54.2% shooting over his past three games.