KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The college basketball world has gotten to know Auburn well these last three weeks.
PJ Washington needed no such introduction.
He has faced Auburn three times over his two seasons at Kentucky, so he knows well what the Tigers can do.
"We definitely know how they play and stuff like that," Washington said. "We know they can make shots. Bryce Brown is a great 3-point shooter. So is Jared Harper. They definitely have guys that can play their roles, knock down 3s and can definitely guard the ball."
The fifth-seeded Tigers (29-9) have used that style to torch the nets – and, usually, their opponents – with a remarkable run to close out the regular season, blitz through the SEC Tournament and race into an All-SEC Elite Eight matchup with No. 2 Kentucky (30-6) Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET.
Auburn's 11-game winning streak features a pair of wins over Tennessee, a second-round demolition of Kansas and a Sweet 16 domination of top-seeded North Carolina. The Tigers have made at least 12 3-pointers in seven straight games, including 42 total in their three NCAA Tournament wins.
"They've definitely earned their way to get here," Reid Travis said. "They beat a couple great teams to get here. We know they can shoot the ball really well. We know who they are and stuff like that. We played them twice, so we definitely know their games."
|Kentucky vs. Auburn|
|.345||Opp 3PT FG%||.347|
Kentucky swept those two matchups, eking out a win at Auburn thanks in large part to clutch plays by Tyler Herro that foreshadowed his Sweet 16 heroics and later thoroughly outplaying the Tigers in Rupp Arena. Kentucky handed Auburn its most lopsided loss of the season that day, winning 80-53 in spite of Travis missing the game due to a sprained knee.
"We were dominated, completely outplayed, but Kentucky played really well," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We weren't awful, but they were great. So I left the game and I wanted our guys not to beat themselves up."
That loss on Feb. 23 sent Auburn to 18-9 on the season, 6-7 in SEC play. The Tigers had risen to as high as No. 7 in both polls in nonconference play, but had reached somewhat of a crossroads.
"I believe that we may have been spoiled early in the season from the previous year's success," junior forward Anfernee McLemore said. "But coming from the Kentucky loss, there was a point in the locker room we felt like we were tired of losing. The atmosphere changed and all the guys became locked in and ready. We was more engaged and more ready to take on the rest of the season."
Auburn hasn't lost since, while Kentucky has won five of its last six and finally now has a full roster after Washington returned from a sprained foot to score 16 points in 26 minutes against Houston. Experiencing no setbacks and getting plenty of treatment, Washington expects to play Sunday.
"They're very hot right now and they're almost a different team than we played the first two times," Travis said. "I feel the same way about us as far as guys having more confidence and stepping up. I think it's going to be a unique game in that sense where obviously you can watch the film from the previous two, but it's still going to be a brand-new game."
A brand-new game, yes, but what UK will face won't be completely foreign. In the second half of the game at Auburn, the Tigers drilled eight second-half 3s to overcome a 17-point Kentucky lead in an outburst reminiscent of their postseason run. The Cats, however, were able to weather the storm.
"That's been the biggest thing all season: us understanding that you can play great defense sometimes and a team will make a tough, contested shot, but the percentages will work themselves out," Travis said. "For us, it's just continue to be consistent, just understanding if we play the right way throughout the course of the game, that it should work itself out."
The new variable Sunday will be the absence of Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in Auburn's win over North Carolina Friday night. The sophomore forward had been a key factor in Auburn's run and averaged 12.5 points in the two games against Kentucky.
"It's tough to lose Chuma," Harper said. "Like I said yesterday, I felt like he's our most valuable player for our team, all the things that he's able to do in the court, guard one through five, be able to be smooth from perimeter, score inside and just do all those things. I know we're going to get that production of all those things he did from all of us it's going to take all of us, not just one single person."
Losing Okeke is undoubtedly a deflating loss, but the Cats know Auburn has come too far to not bring it Sunday.
"I think they'll still be ready," Herro said. "They're playing, like coach said, as hard as any team in the country. I think they'll still come out, play their game. I think they'll be ready to go."
It will be on the Cats to do the same.
"We definitely know they're a great team," Washington said. "We beat them the last two times, but we know this means more than the last two times. They're going to come out fighting and they want it just like we want it. Whoever wants it more is going to win."