Wednesday's game looks to be the toughest game on the 2004-2005 schedule for Auburn. "We'll talk about it, but we won't really harp on it," says Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said of playing in front of an expected crowd of 22,000-plus against the nation's fifth-ranked team. "We have enough problems on game day. The kids watch TV, follow basketball and know the history of the place. They know how tough it is to win against Kentucky anywhere. It's just magnified at Rupp."
After a poor performance in a 57-45 loss at Georgia Saturday, the Tigers enter the game at 12-13 overall and 3-9 in SEC play. It is the first time all season the Tigers have had a losing record.
Kentucky suffered its only SEC loss of the season on Feb. 15 against South Carolina by the score of 73-61 in Columbia, a place where Auburn won 74-71 on Feb. 12. However, the Wildcats rebounded to beat Mississippi State 94-78 on Saturday and enter the contest with Auburn at 20-3 overall, 11-1 in the SEC.
"They're playing extremely well and at a high level," Lebo said. "I think the South Carolina loss made them mad more than anything else and they handled Mississippi State very easily, especially in the second half. I think if you look at Kentucky you see improvement as the year has gone on. The freshmen (guards Romel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Rajon Rondo and center Randolph Morris) are playing much better and are much more comfortable."
Nathan Watson is one of just three current Tigers who have been to Rupp Arena for a game.
All four of the freshmen are getting significant minutes for Coach Tubby Smith on a squad that also has three all-star caliber veterans--forwards Chuck Hayes (10.7 points, 8.6 rebounds) and Kelenna Azubuike (14.3 points, 4.8 rebounds) and guard Patrick Sparks (11.2 points, 4.1 assists), who actually wanted to play at Auburn but was not offered a scholarship. He is in his first year at Kentucky after playing two seasons at Western Kentucky and sitting out last season.
"I really like their point guard, Rajon Rondo," Lebo said. "I really like Randolph Morris, who is a terrific inside player who is playing better and better. Those freshmen are now sophomores. When they get their depth right and they get some guys off the bench who are playing consistently, they're tough to beat no matter where you play them.
"They've made drastic improvements from the beginning of the year to right now," he added. "They've got a lot of guys they can play and they can have good, competitive practices and that's helped them as the year has gone on."
Six-foot-ten-inch Morris, who was a McDonald's All-American, was a big-time recruit for Smith last season and is averaging 8.8 points and four rebounds.
"Morris has improved so much from the beginning of the season," Lebo noted. "He's got great hands, he's got good skills, scores right, scores left and is a very big player who can offensive rebound."
Another player who concerns Lebo heading into Wednesday's game is 7-3 sophomore Shagari Alleyne, who is averging only 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds but has used his 97-inch wingspan to block 40 shots this season.
"We'll do the same things (defensively) we try to do every other game," Lebo said. "We'll see how they play us. A lot of teams have gone smaller against us, which has helped us on the defensive end but hurts us on the offensive end. Alleyne hasn't been playing as much as he had earlier in the season. I don't know what we'll do if they just lob it up to him. When he gets in there we'll have to try to push him out. He's gotten stronger and he's gotten better."
While no Auburn player has scored a single point in their careers at Rupp Arena (Nathan Watson and Troy Gaines played there two years ago but did not score, and reserve Moses Edun was a team manager at the time), Lebo has had good and bad experiences in the 23,000-seat arena.
"(As an assistant at South Carolina along with current Auburn assistant John Cooper), we won in there one year which was an unbelievable game when (Rick) Pitino was there and we won the SEC championship outright in 1997," he said. "We played terrific on senior night to win in there, which was phenomenal."
"The other thing I remember about it is that I finished my career there in the (1989) NCAA tournament when we lost to Michigan (who later won the national championship)," Lebo added. "I have some good memories of it, but like most coaches, I don't have as many good ones as bad ones."
"I think you've just got to work through it," Lebo said of Auburn's poor shooting. "Shooting sometimes is a contagious thing. A couple of key guys start missing and it's contagious. We've struggled in the last two games with our two leading scorers and that's kind of filtered down to the rest of the team. We play our best when Toney and Ian score the ball for us. It opens up so many things for the other guys."
The game will be televised at 7 p.m. CST on JP Sports.