What is at stake for Kentucky in marquee matchup versus Auburn basketball

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LEXINGTON – Control of the Southeastern Conference title race is not the only thing at stake when No. 2 Auburn hosts No. 12 Kentucky basketball Saturday.

Kentucky needs Quadrant 1 wins to mount a case for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn needs a signature win to pass Gonzaga for the top spot in the top 25 polls for the first time in program history.

“It’s probably the biggest home game we’ve had since I’ve been coaching, and we’ve played Kentucky here three or four times, I think,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “There’s 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 because we only play them once. It’s a huge opportunity for either team to kind of put themselves in position where everybody else is going to be looking up at you.”

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The matchup represents the game of the weekend and figures to garner significant national attention for the winner.

With the series tightening in recent years, bragging rights are more than a token benefit too.

“Anytime you’re in a league and another team is good, you know it’s a significant game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday. “The problem with us is if we try to make any game bigger than (we can’t) because every game is a white out, a blue out, a black out. It’s just how it is.”

Kentucky basketball vs. Auburn is a budding rivalry

Auburn’s chance to move to No. 1 in the polls with a win has raised the hype for the game, but the marquee matchup is only the latest step in a budding rivalry between the two programs.

Kentucky holds an 96-22 advantage all time in the series but is just 5-5 against the Tigers in the last six seasons. UK has won consecutive games in the series just once in that span, sweeping both regular seasons games in 2018-19 before losing to Auburn in an overtime game in the 2019 Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament.

That matchup was Kentucky’s last NCAA Tournament game after the 2020 tournament was canceled an the Wildcats missed the 2021 tournament.

“There was a time when Auburn basketball would always play you hard but really wasn’t much of a threat to beat you,” Pearl said. “So, coach (John) Calipari would just simply have to get his guys to not overlook and respect Auburn. Now, that’s different. Now, this game matters.”

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Both Kentucky and Auburn struggled during the coronavirus-altered 2020-21 season, but the two teams both finished in the top four of the SEC in each of the three previous seasons.

Auburn (17-1, 6-0) is the only remaining unbeaten team in SEC play this season. Kentucky (15-3, 5-1) has sole possession of second place. The SEC does not break ties for the regular season championship, but the winner Saturday will be in the pole position in the race for the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.

“It’s a lot easier to come to Auburn and make history than it is to go to Kentucky because they make history every year,” Pearl said. “We don’t make history every year, but we have the last four or five years. You want to be able to leave your mark.”

Jabari Smith presents a challenging matchup for Kentucky

The race for SEC Player of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year should take center stage on Saturday too. Kentucky boasts National Player of the Year candidate Oscar Tshiebwe and four-time reigning SEC Freshman of the Week TyTy Washington, but Auburn features the possible 2022 NBA draft No. 1 pick in freshman forward Jabari Smith.

Smith leads Auburn in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.3 rebounds per game). The 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward is shooting 43% (40 for 93) from 3-point range.

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While Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin is the most likely candidate to guard Smith, Tshiebwe and Washington might need to match his production. Tshiebwe could also be challenged by Auburn center Walker Kessler, who ranks second in the country in blocked shots per game (4.3).

“This is going to be a great matchup,” Tshiebwe said. “For us, we’re going to go take what we think we deserve. We’re going to go fight for our victory. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky basketball vs Auburn: UK to face one of nation's best teams

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