Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s loss (with an asterisk) at Auburn

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Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 80-71 loss at Auburn on Saturday:

1. Another Kentucky road loss with an asterisk

It happened at LSU. You know the story of that Jan. 4 basketball game in Baton Rouge. Point guard Sahvir Wheeler goes down in the first four minutes after slamming into a backcourt screen. He doesn’t return. Starting guard TyTy Washington moves to point, but then suffers debilitating leg cramps in the second half. He tries to return but can’t. Kentucky loses 65-50.

Saturday we saw the sequel. With 8:20 left in the first half, Washington makes a beautiful floater over Auburn’s 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler. But Washington lands on teammate Oscar Tshiebwe’s leg, injuring his ankle. Off to the locker room he limped. And did not return.

Then, with 11:28 left in the second half, Wheeler collided with a blind-side screen. This one happened in the frontcourt. Kessler was the screener. Wheeler hit the floor and stayed there. He did return to the game later, but was not as effective as he had been previously. Kentucky ends up losing by nine.

The Cats led 25-16 when Washington departed. His plus/minus was a plus-eight. From there, Kentucky was outscored 13-8 the remainder of the half, 64-46 the remainder of the game. Wheeler is a valuable piece, no doubt. But Washington is arguably Kentucky’s best offensive player, a smooth scorer and four-time SEC Freshman of the Week award winner.

“He’s a playmaker,” Calipari said afterward. “If he needs to get a basket, he can get it. We don’t have guys like that.”

It showed.

2. Kentucky suffered too many defensive breakdowns

Even with Washington out and Wheeler limited, Kentucky had its chances. In a hostile environment. Against the No. 2-ranked team in the country. “Even with (the injuries), it was a winnable game,” guard Kellan Grady said. “I think we should have won the game.”

Instead, Auburn won the game by shooting 56.8 percent from the floor. That’s the highest shooting percentage against Kentucky this season, eclipsing the 53.4 by Tennessee last Saturday. The Tigers shot 59.1 percent the second half. Kentucky shot 36.2 percent from the floor Wednesday at Texas A&M and won. It shot 50 percent at Auburn and lost.

“Texas A&M is a good team. Auburn is a great team,” Grady said.

Said Calipari: “We had too many defensive breakdowns.”

For example, Kessler was 8-for-10 from the floor. Seven of his made field goals were dunks. Four of those dunks came off lobs from teammates. The transfer from North Carolina would either roll to the basket for the easy jam, or take a pocket pass from a driving Wendell Green or K.D. Johnson and finish the job.

“They got downhill on us,” Grady said. “They obviously hurt us with that.”

Auburn also shot 29 free throws compared to Kentucky’s 10 attempts from the foul line. The Tigers made 24. Before you go blaming the SEC officials, know that too often Auburn put Wildcat defenders in position where they ended up fouling. Three times UK fouled Auburn three-point shooters. The Tigers made all nine of those free-throw attempts.

Kentucky Wildcats guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) lays on the floor after an injury during a game against the Auburn Tigers at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
Kentucky Wildcats guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) lays on the floor after an injury during a game against the Auburn Tigers at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.

3. Let’s hope for a Kentucky-Auburn rematch

Grady on the postgame Zoom call: “We hope to see them again.”

Tshiebwe on the postgame Zoom call: “I don’t think they’re better than us, in my opinion. … I think we’re going to beat them. I want to play them again.”

It won’t be in the regular season. Saturday’s matchup was the only scheduled game between the two teams this season. The hope is they will meet again in the SEC Tournament in Tampa in March. Or maybe the NCAA Tournament after that. Maybe both.

“I think it’s no secret we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Grady said.

Auburn is as advertised. Pearl has terrific depth. Green, a star for Eastern Kentucky last season, made key plays down the stretch. His back-to-back three-pointers midway through the second half — the second just after Wheeler ran into the Kessler screen — helped turn the tide in Auburn’s favor. Johnson is a player with lots of facial expressions -- and energy.

Overall, Kentucky didn’t do a bad job of containing Jabari Smith, the 6-10 forward who could be the first pick in the NBA Draft come June. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Smith was 5-for-10 from the floor, including one of four from three-point range. By March, he’ll be even better. Scary.

Kentucky should be better, too. The Cats fought Saturday. But they were also short-handed. Calipari didn’t have an update on Washington’s injury. The hope is it’s not serious. And the hope is that if and when these two teams meet again, both will be at full strength. A fair fight. If we’re lucky.

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