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PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SEC MEDIA PORTAL

Auburn Seeks Validation Against Kentucky

BY WIL CREWS
SPORTSCREWS@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

Following a week of solid wins against the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ole Miss Rebels, many thought that the Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team had done enough to earn the No. 1 rank in the country.

However, when the AP Poll was released Monday, the Tigers were ranked No. 2 overall, with Gonzaga claiming the top spot. The perceived slight has been acknowledged by fans and players alike, and will serve as more motivation for Bruce Pearl and his team.

This Saturday, the Tigers will have their biggest opportunity of the season to prove naysayers wrong when the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats (14-3) enter Auburn Arena. While Auburn has looked as impressive as anyone in the country this year, Kentucky appears to be accelerating towards “elite” status. The Tigers have beaten John Calipari and his teams two times running in Auburn Arena; however, the task this year — as most always — is no easy feat.

The Wildcats (14-3) are on hot streak lately, best exemplified by the 107-79 mauling of No. 22 Tennessee last week. Watching it live, the commentators dubbed Kentucky’s play “the best performance from any team all season.” Strong words for a strong team.

Speaking of strength, a portion of Kentucky’s success can be attributed to the physical presence of junior forward Oscar Tshiebwe. The 6-foot-9-inch, 255-pound Lubumbashi, Congo, native is averaging 16.5 points (No. 3 in the SEC) and 14.9 rebounds per game (No. 1 in the SEC by a wide margin).

The Wildcats also boast an impressive array of talent in the backcourt. Freshman TyTy Washington — an efficient shooter and playmaker — leads the way, averaging 14.5 points (No. 9 in the SEC) and 4.8 assist (No. 3 in the SEC) per game; Junior Sahvir Wheeler leads the SEC in assist per game; and senior Kellan Grady comes in at No. 21 in SEC scoring this season, averaging 11.8 per game.

All total, the Wildcats boast the No. 1 scoring offense, free throw percentage, per-game rebound total and per-game assists total in the SEC. And with five players averaging double digit scoring marks, Kentucky is one of the few teams in the country that can contend with Auburn’s depth.

That said, the “new blood, blue blood” Tigers fear no one. The one area of the game clearly in Auburn’s favor is defense. If the Tigers are to emerge victorious Saturday, expect to see big performances in the rebounding, three-point shooting, shot blocking and steal categories. A win keeps the Tigers in sole possession of first place in SEC, and nearly guarantees the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking that many believe they already deserve.

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