Feb. 11, 2014
Auburn senior Chris Denson leads the SEC in scoring with 20.2 points per game (USA Today photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – Tony Barbee, Auburn’s fourth-year head basketball coach, knows the history. He knows he’s never beaten his mentor, Kentucky head coach John Calipari. He knows Auburn has lost 29 out of 30 and 15 straight to the Wildcats.
But none of that, Barbee says, will have anything to do with what happens when No. 13 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2) plays Auburn (11-10, 3-7) tonight at 7 at Auburn Arena.
“I’m thinking about our team getting better and the process,” Barbee said. “I’m not worried about Kentucky. They are a good team. They are well-coached. We are focused on us right now. We’re not focused on record. We’re not focused on wins and losses. We are just focused on getting better every day, every practice, every game.”
Barbee played for Calipari at UMass and coached on his staff at Memphis. As a head coach, he is 0-7 against his former boss, 0-4 at Auburn and 0-3 at UTEP.
“It’s not fun going against your friends,” Barbee said. “Someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. Unfortunately for me I have been on the losing end of a lot of them. … It is an opportunity to go against the best. In sports in general that’s what you look for, the opportunity to compete against the best.”
After losing their first six Southeastern Conference games, the Tigers won three straight before falling 87-80 at LSU last Saturday. They were beaten soundly inside. Kentucky, with five freshmen in the starting lineup, presents a similar challenge with 6-foot-9 Julius Randle (16 ppg, 9.8 rpg), 7-foot Dakari Johnson (4.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and three 6-foot-6 guards – James Young (14.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Aaron Harrison (14 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Andrew Harrison (10.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg). Seven-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein averages 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
“We have some guys that are playing really well and we have some groups that are playing really well on the floor,” Barbee said, “but it’s no secret for this team to be successful we have to get our interior players to play better.”
At LSU, 7-foot Auburn center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum was 0-for-3 from the field and scored three points. Backup Matthew Atewe did not score. LSU won the rebounding battle 46-35.
“It’s no secret what Kentucky does,” Barbee said. “They beat you on the offensive glass. We are going to have to do a better job than we did in our last game of rebounding on the defensive backboard.”
Even in defeat, Auburn’s dynamic scorers on the perimeter continued to flourish. Chris Denson scored 29 points and averages a league-best 20.2 points per game Harrell scored 19 points and averages 19.4 Freshman point Tahj Shamsid-Deen scored 16 and averages 9.4.
But the guards, Barbee says, can’t carry the load alone.
“We need all of our role guys, but we need our interior players to be more consistent on a game-to-game basis. In our three-game stretch our interior guys played very well. They made the difference. Everyone knows what we are going to get from KT (Harrell) and Chris (Denson) and Tahj (Shamsid-Deen). We have to get our other guys, not just our post players but our other role players to step up and play big in big moments.”
Harrell and Denson are eager for their chance to take on the Wildcats.
“They definitely have a good team, and we definitely respect them,” Harrell said. “But for us it’s all about making sure we are getting better and preparing for this game just like any other game. We know it’s Kentucky, a top 25 team, but for us it’s the process of getting better.”
“We are just focused on the game,” Denson said. “We are focused on doing the little things. In the Missouri game, if we would have hit free throws the Missouri game would have been ours. It’s definitely the little things that we will be focusing on tomorrow.”
But the guards, Barbee says, can’t do it alone. They need help from their bigger, taller teammates and even from, their fellow guards.
“We need all of our role guys, but we need our interior players to be more consistent on a game-to-game basis,” Barbee said. “In our three-game stretch our interior guys played very well. They made the difference. Everyone knows what we are going to get from KT, Chris and Tahj. We have to get our other guys, not just our post players but our other role players to step up and play big in big moments.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: