Game against Kentucky returns Bruce Pearl to a favorite theme: making history

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There is a silver metallic display near the entrance of the Auburn team’s locker room that cannot be missed.

It says: “Make AU history” with the “A” and “U” interlocking.

Making history is a theme Bruce Pearl has cited repeatedly in his coaching career.

“We’ve got history with Auburn basketball,” he said during a video teleconference Thursday. “Sonny Smith and Charles Barkley. Cliff Ellis and Chris Porter.

“We don’t have a ton of it. So, it’s a lot easier to come to Auburn and make history than it is to go to Kentucky (for that reason) because they make history every year. . . .

“We want to be able to leave your mark.”

Pearl made repeated references to Auburn’s game against Kentucky on Saturday as such a moment. This echoed what he said after Auburn beat Georgia this week to improve its records to 17-1 overall and 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference.

Kentucky, 15-3 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, can tie for first place by beating Auburn.

“It’s probably the biggest game we’ve had since I’ve been coaching (for Auburn),” said Pearl, who is in his eighth season at the school. “ . . . There is a lot at stake here. Take away the rankings. The winner of this game is going to be at least in control of the regular-season championship moving forward. So, it’s a huge opportunity for either team to put themselves in a position where everybody else is going to be looking up at you.”

Pearl alluded to this attention helping with the building of a program.

“It’s great that on a Saturday in the middle of January, all eyes of the country will be on Auburn, Alabama, on CBS . . . ,” Pearl said. “And it’ll be for men’s basketball. That’s something that you might not have said a few years ago.”

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl referenced a silver metallic display near the entrance of the team’s locker room as a touchpoint for his basketball program. He sees Saturday’s game vs. Kentucky as an opportunity to make history. “It’s probably the biggest game we’ve had since I’ve been coaching (for Auburn),” Pearl said.
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl referenced a silver metallic display near the entrance of the team’s locker room as a touchpoint for his basketball program. He sees Saturday’s game vs. Kentucky as an opportunity to make history. “It’s probably the biggest game we’ve had since I’ve been coaching (for Auburn),” Pearl said.

Pearl compared this Auburn-Kentucky game favorably with the historical stage he and John Calipari shared in February 2008. Their teams, Tennessee and Memphis respectively, were the top two ranked teams in the country.

“While it was a rivalry, it really wasn’t about a championship . . . ,” Pearl said.

The game in 2008 and the one Saturday share a “Super Bowl-like” environment, Pearl said. “This one actually means more. . . . It doesn’t matter if (the rankings are) one and two. Both teams are playing for championships.”

After Auburn beat Georgia 93-60 on Wednesday, Bruce Pearl spoke of Saturday’s game against Kentucky.

“We’ve got to step up in a huge way for Kentucky,” he said. “I think it’s one of the best teams John (Calipari) has had in years. It’ll be a clash of the titans. That’s for sure.”

Saturday will mark the first game between two teams ranked in the top 12 in the 12-year history of Auburn Arena. This week’s top 25 poll by The Associated Press had Auburn at No. 2 and Kentucky at No. 12. The game is a sellout.

After Kentucky won at Texas A&M on Wednesday, Calipari noted that the game included a “white out” in which fans in the sellout crowd were encouraged to wear white. The announced attendance of 14,036 was a record for Reed Arena.

The UK coach playfully suggested that he has invested in T-shirt manufacturing companies in order to profit off the special occasions that are Kentucky games.

“I’m getting a piece off all that action, so I’m happy . . . ,” he said before adding, “I’m just teasing.”

More seriously, Calipari added that playing road games that customarily are unusually special events for the home teams gives Kentucky an advantage.

“The advantage we have with this is because every game is a Super Bowl (for the opponent),” he said. “We’re used to Super Bowl games.”

Pearl did not dispute the notion that Saturday’s game can serve as preparation for the NCAA Tournament.

“It’ll help because this will be our most challenging opponent,” he said of Kentucky. “This will be the best team we’ve played.”

Bruce Pearl celebrates a win over Mississippi this month. The Auburn head coach talked Thursday about how much is at stake when his second-ranked Tigers host No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday.
Bruce Pearl celebrates a win over Mississippi this month. The Auburn head coach talked Thursday about how much is at stake when his second-ranked Tigers host No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday.

Quality opponents are what make the NCAA Tournament riveting, he said before adding, “but this one is more about playing for a championship because there is a regular-season championship at stake, and the outcome of this game will have something to say about it.”

Pearl acknowledged that one of the programs he formerly coached had a more long-lasting rivalry with Kentucky. That would be Tennessee.

“If you asked the average Kentucky fan which team they want to beat most in the league, it’s Tennessee, hands down,” he said. Pearl traced this back to Adolph Rupp and Ray Mears.

As for the current program he leads, “there was a time when Auburn would always play you hard, but really wasn’t much of a threat to beat you,” Pearl said. “So, Coach Calipari would just have to get his guys not to overlook and (to) respect Auburn.

“Now, it’s different. Now, this game matters.”

Pearl defined this relevance by saying, “it stands the test of time.”

Saturday

No. 12 Kentucky at No. 2 Auburn

When: 1 p.m. EST

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 15-3 (5-1 SEC), Auburn 17-1 (6-0)

Series: Kentucky leads 96-22.

Last meeting: Kentucky won 82-80 on Feb. 13, 2021, in Lexington.

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