KANSAS CITY, MO (WAVE) - Kentucky and Auburn will be facing familiar foes Sunday afternoon, when they square off for a trip to the Final Four.
The Southeastern Conference-mates met twice in a home-and-home series in the regular season, with the Wildcats taking both meetings. First, the Cats traveled to Auburn and escaped with an 82-80 win.
Just a few weeks later, the Tigers came to Rupp Arena, where Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s team doled out a 27-point loss. That dominant performance didn’t feature grad transfer big man Reid Travis, who was out with a sprained right ankle.
However, since the Feb. 23 drubbing in Lexington, Auburn has been a perfect 11-0, including wins over North Carolina, Kansas and Tennessee, twice.
Sunday’s matchup will feature different lineups for both teams, as Travis has returned and Auburn will be without sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who went down with a torn left ACL on Friday.
“Everyone of us were -- makes you physically ill," Calipari said. “You know, this is a sport that that happens at times, and you don’t want to see it happen to anybody. And the crazy thing is, you know not only is their team playing as well as any team in the country right now, they’re beating people by 25. Not only is that the case, he was playing as though he was their best player, which he probably was. So I feel bad for him. Feel bad for his family and his teammates.”
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said the locker room was somber after the victory over North Carolina, because the team knew Okeke’s injury was severe. Several Tiger players lamented the loss of one of their leaders, but said it was now on them to help him how they can, by winning.
“It’s hard to take in,” Bryce Brown said. “Chuma, he doesn’t deserve that at all... It’s our jobs to pick him up, lift him up, encourage him, and all we want to do at this point is go out there and play for him. We’re going to use it as motivation. Hopefully we can do this for our boy.”
Still on the mend from an injury of his own, Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington played Friday night, after spending time during the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament in both hard and soft casts. Washington was seemingly back to his old self, giving the Cats 16 points on 6-8 shooting in 26 minutes.
But on Saturday, Washington noted there was definitely still discomfort in his foot after the 62-58 win over Houston, said he was feeling fine on Saturday.
The stakes of Sunday’s game are particularly personal for Travis, who would return home to Minneapolis for the Final Four, if the Cats can pull out the win on Sunday.
“I’m really excited for it, but no more than any other game,” Travis said. “I’m trying to just take the preparation the same way, just approach it like any other game. I feel like if you look at it too much as far as trying to go home and kind of put all that on it, that’s just too much weight on it. So for me, it’s just trying to approach it the same way, just enjoy it with my teammates, go out and work as hard as I can in the game.”
Pearl was frank and complimentary in his assessment of the Wildcats, saying he’s been aware of their greatness for a while.
“I was telling people buy Kentucky early on in the season. I’ve seen them play. I know how physical they are. They play the game the right way. Look, defensive rebounding wins championships. It’s probably the best defensive and rebounding team in the country. Last night’s game against Houston was as physical and tough a game as you would -- strength on strength.”
Perhaps a bit of added incentive for Pearl, he recruited and was turned down by several of the current Wildcats.
“I was probably the first person to offer all of these guys I just told you about, and lost every single one of them to Kentucky,” Pearl said. “Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery, are all guys I’ve known and recruited at one time or another had committed.”
Another interesting tidbit which emerged in Saturday’s media availability, Calipari revealed that in a trip to Auburn, he relieved himself on a statue of Charles Barkley. The coach seemed to bring up the anecdote about his friend jokingly, in the process of praising the history of Auburn basketball.
“Well (Pearl)'s gotten a program where people are absolutely excited,” Calipari said. “And Sonny Smith back in the day had it rolling. He had that guy, what was his name? Charles.. what’s his last name? That big guy with the big head. What’s his name? Oh, Charles Barkley. I peed on his statue down there, just so you know.”
Barkley, who’s been vocal in his support for the Tigers winning the national championship on national broadcasts throughout March will no doubt have a response ahead of Sunday’s afternoon matchup.
Both Calipari and Pearl discussed their history, the coaches previously faced off when Pearl was at Tennessee and Calipari was at Memphis.
“ I think there’s respect between us... I think sometimes you’re at places, it’s hard to have a relationship,” Calipari said. “The Memphis thing kind of bothered him because we were at Memphis and he was at Tennessee. They were the big state school and we’re in the little corner over there and getting a lot of play, and it probably bothered him some.”
“(I’ve) got great respect for Coach Calipari," Pearl said. “When he was at Memphis, I was at Tennesse, and , you know, Memphis while it was a basketball powerhouse was in the State of Tennessee and sometimes got overshadowed. Believe it or not, I was at the big school and he was at the smaller school and playing in Conference USA versus the SEC... I would just say this: I think as far as a relationship is involved, I’ve grown to respect him and appreciate the job that he does."
Despite whatever’s in the past for these two elite coaches, one thing’s for sure, they’ve brought their respective basketball programs to an elite level, and assured that an SEC team will be in the Final Four.
We’ll find out which one starting at 2:20 p.m. ET Sunday afternoon.