LEXINGTON — From what Kentucky coach John Calipari has seen, Auburn coach Tony Barbee has his Tigers playing harder than UK¿has been.
That’s why Calipari knows Saturday night’s game against Barbee, who played and coached under him at Massachusetts, will be a difficult matchup for the Wildcats.
Tennessee. “We have to go to Auburn, Auburn is playing as well as anybody in our league right now, on the road, they are retiring numbers, it's Jersey Day, Cup Day and Bat Day in Auburn. And it's going to be an absolute war for us to get down there on the road and try to steal one.”
Stealing a road win at Auburn, which lost 88-80 at Arkansas in double overtime Wednesday when it missed 10 of 17 free throws, is not normal talk at tradition-rich Kentucky, but UK sophomore Kyle Wiltjer knew what his coach meant.
“Every game in the SEC is tough. We are excited about going to Auburn, but we know how hard it will be to win,” Wiltjer said.
Two SEC coaches, Johnny Jones of LSU and Frank Martin of South Carolina, both have been impressed by Auburn’s play this season.
“Auburn had to take a few lumps early in the season to get ready for conference play,” Jones said. “They played at Illinois and lost by only two points and beat Florida State at their place. I knew it would be a tough game fo rus. They made some tough plays and continued to grow as a team. I think coach Barbee has done a terrific job and those guys are playing extremely confident. They are very balanced, have experience and know how to play.”
Senior guard Frankie Sullivan leads the Tigers (8-8, 2-1 SEC) in scoring at 17.8 points per game and center Rob Chubb adds 9.9 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game.
“Chubb has done a tremendous job. He is a load down there in the low post,” Jones said. “He has great size and strength and is very competitive. Sullivan is just a tremendous player. He is a big-time threat and someone you have to prepare for and he’s able to create opportunities for others on his team as well.”
Martin says the experience of Sullivan, who had 26 points (23 came in the second half when he made five 3-pointers) against Arkansas, and Chubb shows this season.
“That gives Tony (Barbee) two guys that understands what it takes to win. Every time we had a chance to make plays to build a lead or take a lead, both of those guys made plays,”¿Martin said. “They are playing with a lot of confidence. That was obvious to me watching them on film and they played that way.”
Martin was particularly impressed by Chubb, who shoots 52 percent from the field.
“He is a senior. He understands the game,” Martin said. “He understands angles. He understands where he belongs on the court. That’s what seniors do. They take care of business and make simple plays. He does not get caught up in the charade of just making plays. He just makes the simple plays and he understands what Tony wants him to do.”
Kentucky seems still trying to figure out what Calipari wants from each player.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress knows he’s being scrutinized for not going all-out often enough.
“I¿have been doing that all my life, but everybody can always go harder. I am just trying to push myself as hard as anybody else,” Poythress said. “We are just trying to win games. We take it one game at a time. It is a long season. we have a lot of games ahead of us. We just have to learn to execute down the stretch offensively and play great defense.”
Kentucky beat Tennessee Tuesday in a game that got a bit chippy on both sides.
“It got a little bit chippy, but that’s every game. Everybody is going to try and be physical with us, so we have to be physical back. We cannot back down,” Poythress said. “I feel like we can beat teams when we want to. We just have to get used to playing with each other and just find each other and play great basketball out there.
“We have some road games coming up that are very important, but we just have to go into places and get a W (win) one step at a time.”