Who's afraid of Big Blue Bully Kentucky? It ain't Auburn
Two very good college basketball teams, the two very best teams and programs in the Southeastern Conference, will tango Saturday in Rupp Arena in the biggest game of the SEC season. To put those teams and this game in the proper perspective, riddle me this:
Which of those teams has won two straight, three of the last five and four of the last seven in the series? It ain't Kentucky.
Which of those teams has more recently clinched an SEC regular-season championship, an SEC Tournament title and a trip to the Final Four? It ain't Kentucky.
Which of those teams is the only team in the league that still has a chance to win a conference ring of some sort for the third straight year? It ain't Kentucky.
The answer to all three questions, of course, is Auburn, which has earned its place on the same floor as Kentucky in the biggest SEC game of the season. And not for the first time.
A year ago, the summit meeting of the SEC's best - consider the historical weight of that indisputable statement - took place in the Elite Eight. Who was the tougher team in overtime on the last day of March, 2019, to advance to the Final Four?
It wasn't Kentucky. It was Auburn.
Of all the walls Bruce Pearl and his Tigers have broken and ceilings they've shattered in the last three years, no demolition of preconceived notions may be as mind-blowing as this: Auburn basketball has reached a place where it can walk into any game against the forever king of SEC basketball and look him dead in the eye. Not because Kentucky has lost its way. Because Auburn has found a way.
See the quicksilver J'Von McCormick, the swaggy, shimmying Samir Doughty, the precocious, ferocious Isaac Okoro, the man-in-full Austin Wiley, etc., etc., etc., refusing to let the house that Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke built settle, let alone crumble.
Kentucky may be in first place by two games over Auburn with three to play in the regular season, but this is now a battle of equals for the third year running. Consider the evidence. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Auburn has more overall wins than Kentucky (80-79); one more SEC regular-season title (1-0); the same number of SEC Tournament wins (4-4) and titles (1-1); the same number of NCAA Tournament wins (5-5); and one more trip to the Final Four (1-0).
Auburn is doing these things not in the era of Billy Gillispie's Kentucky but John Calipari's. This historic turn of events is a stunning development even if you weren't in the building Jan. 9, 1988 - as I was - when John Caylor hit that dragon-slaying 3-pointer the last time Auburn beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Yes, the one thing Pearl and the Tigers haven't done is take down the Wildcats in their lair. It won't be easy Saturday afternoon, especially since Kentucky has a chance to exact some payback and clinch the SEC regular-season title, but why stop making history now? Auburn has never beaten Kentucky twice in the same season. Auburn has never beaten Kentucky in three straight meetings. Win this one, and Auburn will sever more nevers.
Lose this one, and so what? On their last visit to Lexington on Feb. 23, 2019, the Tigers lost by 27 points. They were so crushed, they've won 36 of 41 games since so … you tell me. Of the two teams at the top of the SEC standings, which is in greater need of a validating victory?
Narrator: It ain't Auburn.