With a two-game deficit in the SEC standings, Kentucky will likely have to win at least one of its matchups with Florida – if not both – for a chance to win the league title.
But before their first showdown with the Gators, the 14th-ranked Wildcats will have to avoid looking past their visit to Auburn on Wednesday night.
Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) is trying to chase down No. 3 Florida, with meetings Saturday and on March 8 in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale. Wednesday’s matchup with the Tigers – whom Kentucky will be trying to defeat for the 16th straight time – won’t draw nearly as much fanfare. However, coach John Calipari will likely be guarding against a letdown, particularly considering his team’s generally uninspiring performance in a 69-59 victory at Mississippi State on Saturday.
Julius Randle had 16 points in Kentucky’s third straight win since a five-point loss at LSU on Jan. 28. The Wildcats closed the first half on a 19-6 run and held their opponent below 39.0 percent shooting for the fourth time in six games, but Kentucky failed to put away the game in the second half.
The Bulldogs, who entered with four straight losses, were 11 of 22 from the field over the final 20 minutes.
Calipari gave little credit to his players beyond senior role-players Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson, perhaps sending a message to his all-freshman starting five.
"Today, the only time we could play hard was when I put Hood and Jarrod Polson in the game," Calipari said. "I thought Dakari (Johnson) fought, but I thought the rest of us just went through the motions of playing. I just don’t get it. But that’s what happens when you’re a young team."
Kentucky’s 3-point shooting remains inconsistent, with the Wildcats going 5 for 31 over the last two games after shooting 42.6 percent from beyond the arc in their previous six.
They continue to lead the conference with an average rebounding margin of plus-10.1 and could dominate the boards considering Auburn’s plus-0.6 average.
After losing their first six in SEC play, the Tigers (11-10, 3-7) reeled off three straight victories prior to an 87-80 loss at LSU on Saturday. Auburn had held its previous three opponents to 65.3 points per game.
"Our defense wasn’t as sharp as it has been," coach Tony Barbee, who played under Calipari at Massachusetts and served as his assistant at Memphis, told the team’s website. "You’re not going to win on the road giving up 87 points."
Chris Denson, who leads the league with 20.2 points per game, scored 29 for his third game of 25-plus in his last four. But he was 2 for 11 in the second half, which Auburn opened with a one-point advantage.
Auburn hasn’t beaten Kentucky since a 66-63 home win on Jan. 11, 2000.