AUBURN, Ala. – So news that forward Willie Cauley-Stein, one of Kentucky’s four freshmen who start, doesn’t expect to play Saturday was passed along to Auburn coach Tony Barbee.
How, Barbee was asked, did he believe his friend John Calipari would cope with the 7-foot hole in his lineup?
“He just reaches down the bench and goes and grabs another McDonald’s All-American,” Barbee said. “So it doesn’t change much.”
That’s life for the Kentucky basketball program, never short on talent or mystique. However, this year’s Wildcats edition is a shell of its former self after winning the national championship ten months ago – UK is 11-5, not receiving a single vote in either the Associated Press or USA Today polls after opening the year ranked third in both publications.
None of that should mute the atmosphere inside sold-out Auburn Arena Saturday night for a 9 p.m. ET tipoff aired by ESPNU. Auburn (8-8, 2-1 SEC) has asked its fans to “Orange Out” for the game, for the program’s first home sellout since last year’s visit from Coach Cal and the Wildcats.
“Especially when you’re tied,” senior guard Frankie Sullivan said, “and you feel like you don’t have anything left, the crowd starts to yell at loose balls and everybody’s diving on the ball – it gives you more energy and passion to go and get that loose ball. It really helps us out.
“I really appreciate the crowd coming out and I appreciate them selling the game out for us.”
Barbee, Sullivan and junior Allen Payne preached an even-keel mentality entering the weekend, downplaying the significance of hosting star-studded Kentucky.
Easier said than done for younger players like guards Shaquille Johnson and Brian Greene Jr. or center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum.
“For the veteran guys, it’s the next game on the schedule for them because this isn’t the first time that they’ve played against Kentucky,” Barbee said. “Obviously for the new guys, the freshmen, it’s a chance to play against Kentucky, and we all know what that represents.”
The Tigers understand the fans will make much ado, mainly because Auburn has earned the right to call this a big game based on its solid play in SEC action thus far with wins over LSU and South Carolina and a nail-biting double-overtime loss at Arkansas.
“I think every game to me personally is a big game, because in the SEC as you can see this year, anybody can beat you,” Sullivan said. “All teams are going at it. This game is big for the fans. They put more into it – they want to see us beat a team like Kentucky who has all the great players coming out every year. If we win this game, that gives us motivation that we can play with anyone in the country.”
Kentucky also starts freshmen Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, each averaging more than 13 points per game.
But the Wildcats, 38-2 last season behind the NBA’s top two 2012 draft picks Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, have already been beaten by at least nine points three times, including last Saturday at home 83-71 to Texas A&M.
“They’re just as talented – I don’t think that they have the same veteran leadership that they had the past two years,” Payne said. “But you can’t discount the talent that they have. You know how Coach Cal is going to recruit, and he’s going to get the best of the best in the country.”
Former Auburn All-American Mike Mitchell will have his jersey number posthumously retired Saturday night, with his family in attendance to bask in the honor.
Also scheduled to appear: former Auburn forward Charles Barkley, and head football coach Gus Malzahn.
Cauley-Stein, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week Jan. 7, had a knee procedure this week, which means the frontcourt will be dominated by fellow rookie Nerlens Noel. He averages 10.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and an SEC-topping 3.9 blocks per game.
Auburn junior Chris Denson and freshman Jordan Price remain out with stress fractures.