Midwest Region Elite Eight Prediction and Free Pick: #2 Kentucky vs. #5 Auburn

Date | AuthorCorey Pabst

Last Updated: 2019-03-30

The road to the Final Four makes its final two detours, on Sunday, and the representative of the Midwest Region will punch its ticket to Minneapolis, at 2:20 ET, on CBS.

It comes as no surprise that John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats, once again, find themselves in a position to earn a trip to the Semifinals; for Kentucky has done so three times already since Calipari took over coaching duties in 2010.

The Wildcats’ road was far from flat and smooth, however, and aside from their first round blowout over Abilene Christian, they found themselves as Cats in a few dogfights – pulling out late game wins over Wofford (18th overall, KenPom), 62-56, and Houston (13th), 62-58.

Heading into Friday night’s game with Houston, the big question on all of Big Blue Nation’s collective mind was whether P.J. Washington would return to the lineup, and if he did, how much he would play, and how affective would he be. Washington surprised the doubters, and though not officially starting the game, P.J. returned to a near full workload, getting 26 minutes off the bench, and contributing 16 points, two rebounds, one block, and one steal.

Statistically, the game was evenly played; with Houston getting up seven more shot attempts overall, but Kentucky getting to the line seven more times than did Houston. Both teams shot essentially the same percentage from three (35% UK to 33% UH) and the line (78% UK and 75% UH), but it was points inside that had the final say – with Kentucky going for 53% to Houston’s 43%. The Wildcats also out-rebounded the Cougs by 13, and at the end of the day, it was Kentucky’s size advantage inside that proved to be the dagger to Houston’s season.

This has been the story for much of UK’s path to the Elite Eight – dominating the glass, points in the paint, and using their advantage in size and athleticism to own the floor game. Abilene Christian, Wofford, and Houston were all teams below average in height, so matchups have been favorable in this regard; and in drawing Auburn, this edge may continue to express itself, with the Tigers being of below average size (207th) and now down their star starting Center.

Losing Chuma Okeke (highest offensive rating on team per KenPom), at the end of the game last night, put quite the damper on what was a magical night for Auburn. Okeke was the star of the evening, winning MVP of the game with his 20 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and two steals, in a 97-80 rout of number one seed, North Carolina. Going down with a knee injury late in the second half, Okeke will be unavailable for Sunday night’s game and will be a key missing piece for the Tigers, coming off one of the more impressive performances of his Collegiate career.

Okeke’s 60% from three lead the way for an Offensive onslaught from Auburn, in which they went 46% from three on 37 attempts. It wasn’t just from outside that Auburn dominated the game either, for the Tigers would finish 66% inside to Carolina’s 57%; and in a game in which they were expected to be dominated on the glass – Auburn was out-rebounded by only four.

The Tigers have been on fire from three throughout their journey to the Elite Eight, going for: 39% in their 78-77 win over New Mexico State (53rd overall, KenPom), 43% in their 89-75 win over Kansas (17th), and now 46% over UNC (8th).

This was the first game, however, in which Auburn finally held its own on the glass, and did so, against one of the better rebounding teams in the nation. This unexpected performance inside was enough to prove that Auburn can hang with anybody in the nation on the glass, and that they are good enough on the interior to hang with a team like Kentucky in the paint. But then, Okeke goes down (2nd Auburn Rebounding %); and now we are left wondering if this perceived deficiency will come to show itself again.

Down Okeke (119.0 Off Rating, KenPom) the Auburn offense (6th) will now have to rely more on the services of Juniors, Danjel Purifoy (118.3) and Austin Wiley (104.1). Purifoy has the offensive ability to fill in admirably- especially from three (39%), and Austin Wiley, at 6’10”, is statistically, a better rebounder than Okeke; but Okeke’s leadership will be greatly missed, and whether either player has that “it” factor that had Okeke step up on the biggest stage remains to be seen.

On paper, Auburn should be able to find an advantage on the perimeter (14th) against a Kentucky defense (8th) that has been below average in defending the three (180th). The Tigers will certainly look to exploit this perceived edge, as the team 6th most reliant on threes in the nation; especially given that Kentucky has allowed nearly 36% of its allowed points to come from beyond the arc (59th). This could be an edge not fully appreciated in the spread; a number that looks to be adjusted about two-and-a-half points upward from what the season long metrics would predict.

The Kentucky offense (12th), which we would now expect to have P.J. Washington back at his full compliment of minutes, will look to exploit inside, where it scores 54% of its points (51st), in shooting 53% (70th). The Auburn defense, while undersized, has only allowed 44% of its points against to be scored inside (325th), even though it has allowed 51% on the season (219th).

The biggest question in this matchup, as it was with Carolina, is whether Auburn can hold its own again on the boards, as one of the worst teams in the country on the defensive glass (334th) against one of the best offensive rebounding teams (5th) in the nation. The Tigers stepped up in a big way on Friday night against the 16th best offensive rebounding team, but much of the praise goes to Okeke, who hauled in 11 of the teams 36 rebounds. Wiley did come away with five boards in six minutes, which is promising, while Purifoy hauled in two, in 12 minutes. Maybe there is a slight edge to Kentucky given this disparity that may not be completely considered in the number, given the statistics, but increased minutes from Wiley could result in less of an advantage for Kentucky.

Pick: Kentucky – 4 -110

In looking at the two previous matchups between these teams, both of which were won by Kentucky: 82-80 on January 19th in Auburn, and 80-53, in Kentucky, on February 25th – it was the edge inside by Kentucky that appeared to most significantly impact the outcome. In both games: Kentucky won the glass (43-24 and 33-26) and was much more effective inside offensively (61% to 50% and 62% to 36%).

Auburn is a team that lives and dies by the three, and the two matchups with Kentucky demonstrate that truth dramatically. In the first meeting, Auburn shot 43% and lost by two and in the second meeting Auburn shot 30% and lost by 27. If 43% wasn’t enough to get it done, then I don’t know what percentage they’ll have to shoot here, but I wouldn’t count on that happening.

They’ve been extremely hot from three in this Tournament, and hence, the Tigers have found themselves in the Elite Eight. Statistics tells us that the most likely scenario to expect in any given data point is usually regression towards the mean, and the absence of Okeke (39% 3P%) is added reason to expect that regression vs. Kentucky.

Bruce Pearl was emotional in his interview following Auburn’s win Friday night, and those tears of joy are understandable; given that Pearl had just won the second Sweet Sixteen game of his career and has just taken Auburn to its first Elite Eight since 1985. And while the story is great, and while most of America will rooting for Auburn to make its first Final Four, it’s just business as usual for John Calipari and Kentucky. Calipari will be coaching his seventh Elite Eight game and has the big game experience that is another added edge for the Wildcats.

We all love an underdog, and perhaps that’s why the number is a bit short here; but the reality is, behind the emotion of a great story, is that the number may be just a bit short.

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