Peck’s Picks: Tougher Than Leather
Auburn University’s men’s basketball team continued its remarkable season on Wednesday night with a 76-66 victory over the visiting Kentucky Wildcats in Auburn Arena.
Even though the #10 Tigers entered the game as a substantial favorite, Kentucky’s historic dominance of Auburn and the Wildcats size advantage suggested that the game should be close throughout, and it was. Even when Kentucky is having a disappointing season, they’re still Kentucky, a team with four projected 2018 NBA Draft first-round picks in their starting lineup.
Auburn started the game cold from the three-point line; to overcome, the Tigers had to rely on transition defense, spectacular free-throw shooting, and sheer will until shots started to fall. Bryce Brown, playing his first game since injuring his shoulder against Texas A&M,
Throughout the final ten minutes of the game, Kentucky’s players seemed to lack energy. Auburn’s pressing style and desire to play at a fast tempo has left opposing teams gasping for air in the closing minutes; despite Kentucky’s vast athleticism and experience playing up-tempo basketball, they were no different. Auburn exhausted Kentucky on both ends of the floor, leaving Kentucky with nothing left in the gas tank when the game was in its most crucial moments.
Tigers point guard Jared Harper, who now leads the conference in assists per game, made all 9 of his free throw attempts and showcased his fearless, willing-to-shoot-from-anywhere attitude. At 5’10” and 170 pounds, it’s understandable for the uninitiated to wonder if Harper is strong enough to withstand the pounding that he takes because of the physical style he plays, but Harper is representative of the team for which he plays: he’s tough, he’s fast, he’ll bother you with his defense, and people who overlook him are making a big mistake.
With Brown back in the fold and seemingly showing no ill-effects from his injured shoulder, head coach Bruce Pearl will try to keep his foot on the gas and ensure that Auburn finishes this special season with a bang. With five regular-season games left before the SEC tournament, Pearl could rack up 27 or 28 wins and keep Auburn in excellent position for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Basketball can break your heart, though: Auburn could go cold again, or stumble against a team equipped to exploit its lack of size inside (or a team that won’t waver if forced to play 40 up-tempo minutes). The unknowability of the NCAA Tournament is one of the things that makes it a preferred sporting event.
Until Selection Sunday gets here and shows us Auburn’s exact path to college basketball’s national championship, all the Tigers can do is continue to win.
– Even before A&M’s victory in Auburn Arena, I was struck by how many good teams are in the SEC this year. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes lobbied for nine SEC teams to make the tournament after his team beat Kentucky, and the idea doesn’t seem too farfetched as the middle of the conference continues to get bigger and bigger. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and LSU appear to be the only teams in the league with no real shot of qualifying for the tournament as an at-large. The other eleven almost assuredly won’t all make it, but they’re all firmly in the hunt – including Auburn’s opponent on the road Saturday, South Carolina.
– I’m not sure what made Josh McDaniels decide to bail on the Colts in the hours before his introductory press conference, but I understand why he wouldn’t want to coach that franchise. Even though there are an extremely limited number of NFL head coaching positions, the Colts are simply in too much turmoil. Questions linger about the owner’s fitness for office, but more pressing questions remain about the health and long-term prognosis of quarterback Andrew Luck. When Luck was at Stanford, he was pegged as a surefire NFL great, and he displayed immense promise in his initial seasons with the Colts. Unfortunately, his shoulder injury has been mishandled and years have been shaved off his prime, and now it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever become the player everyone was certain he could be. It echoes the story of Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, who also showed all-time-great promise but ultimately had his career derailed by injuries that kept him from living up to his potential on the field. Hopefully I’m wrong and Luck can reestablish himself as one of the league’s best players, but the decision by McDaniels leads me to believe it won’t happen anytime soon.
– With pitchers and catchers on the verge of reporting, here are some things I’m looking forward to about this year’s Major League Baseball season: the addition of Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, the continued brilliance of Mike Trout, the Astros infield, the race for the NL Central, the Giants attempt to bounce back after last year’s disastrous season, the glut of power-hitting first basemen in the National League (Goldschmidt, Votto, Freeman, Bellinger, Rizzo, and possibly Eric Hosmer if somebody signs him), and the big-name hitters that could find themselves traded during the year (like Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, or even Bryce Harper).
Until next week, enjoy the games!