Wednesday night was the night Bruce Pearl has waited for since he took the job at Auburn.
Sitting atop the SEC, and playing in front of a raucous sold-out crowd, the No. 10 Tigers took down Kentucky for a 76-66 SEC home win. After beating the Wildcats at home for only the second time in the last 11 tries, the Tigers acted as if this was just another ordinary win. Vegas expected it. Auburn’s students didn’t even attempt to rush the floor despite beating the SEC’s most storied program.
In the midst of a tumultuous season that includes an FBI investigation and internal pressure from the Auburn athletics department, the win on Wednesday helps keep Pearl and the Tigers atop the SEC by two games in the loss column. Without two of its top players this season, Austin Wiley and Danijel Purifoy, Auburn has been arguably the best story in college basketball.
Wednesday night’s game was a microcosm of the SEC’s bizarre 2017-18 campaign. In other words, Auburn is trending in the opposite direction of free-falling Kentucky right now. And who saw that coming entering this season?
Auburn is sitting pretty after Wednesday’s win as they hope to earn a top-2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The young Wildcats, meanwhile, continued their recent struggles as some of their issues are starting to look pretty terrifying. Wednesday’s loss for Kentucky extended its losing streak to four games — the longest in John Calipari’s nine years coaching the Wildcats. That losing streak could just as easily be five games, as well, if not for Vanderbilt handing the Wildcats a win at Rupp Arena a few weeks back.
And Kentucky is just 3-6 since the regular-season debut of heralded McDonald’s All-American freshman Jarred Vanderbilt. Even with the additional depth of Vanderbilt being added to the rotation, Kentucky can’t figure anything out right now. The Wildcats’ half-court offense isn’t gelling. Kentucky’s defense is prone to stretches of inconsistent play.
Perhaps most concerning thing of all is the awful body language displayed by some of Kentucky’s best players. CBT’s Rob Dauster pointed out after Kentucky’s loss to Texas A&M on Saturday that it marked the first time all season that the Wildcats truly looked defeated as they were in the midst of a second-half blowout.
While Kentucky didn’t get blown out by Auburn on Wednesday, the Wildcats still squandered a second-half lead after they secured a little bit of momentum by utilizing their size advantage on the interior. When Kentucky’s momentum — and lead — disappeared, so did the team’s confidence.
ESPN analyst Dan Dakich noted how Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox had his head hanging entering second-half huddles. Even though Knox was one of the only consistent offensive weapons for the Wildcats on Wednesday, his poor defensive possessions were bad enough that Knox found himself on the bench during the final minute.
Freshman Hamidou Diallo has also been in an extended funk over the last several weeks. After seven consecutive games finishing as a double-figure scorer earlier this season, Diallo only has two double-figure scoring games over his last nine.
In the past, the Wildcats have simply been the most talented team in the SEC (and in some cases, America) and they were able to overcome youthful mistakes by overpowering weaker opponents. A deeper SEC, and the youngest Kentucky team Calipari has had during his time in Lexington, means the Wildcats need to actually earn some of the wins they might have picked up in the past.
The current concern for Kentucky is that this losing streak is something that the Wildcats can’t crawl their way out of. Who is the leader of this team right now? How do things stand to improve?
Even after Wednesday’s loss, Kentucky still has a difficult schedule left as they need to play Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss and Florida. Among those five teams, only Ole Miss is outside of the NCAA tournament picture right now.
It’s unlikely that Kentucky misses the NCAA tournament — given how things currently stand. But did anybody expect Auburn to be atop the SEC by two games right now? Did anybody peg Kentucky to have this kind of letdown once a respected five-star freshman entered the rotation? It’s been a truly strange season in the SEC so far. Whatever the issues are for the Wildcats, they need to figure things out in a hurry if they want to be a factor in March.