SEC rivals meet for the third time this season with a Final Four berth on the line
One SEC team is guaranteed a Final Four berth in 2019.
Auburn and Kentucky will clash for a third time this season in the Midwest Regional Final on Sunday. The Tigers are playing in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986 and have never advanced to the Final Four. The Wildcats, on the other hand, are seeking their first Final Four appearance since 2015.
It's safe to say that Auburn faces long odds to get past Kentucky. The Wildcats swept the Tigers in the regular season and are the last team to hand Auburn a defeat. It certainly isn't impossible though with how Auburn has played up to this point.
Auburn has won 11 straight games. The two most recent victories were convincing blowout wins over No. 4 seed Kansas and No. 1 North Carolina. The Tigers are on a roll offensively, averaging 88.0 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has used defense to get to this point. The Wildcats are allowing 52.6 points per game to offset some average offensive performances. They scored just 62 points in wins over Wofford and Houston.
Midwest Region: No. 5 Auburn Tigers (29-9) vs. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (30-6)
Time: 2:20 pm ET (Sunday)
Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City, Mo.)
Keys for Auburn
Bryce Brown and Jared Harper will need to get cooking from the perimeter to give the Tigers their best chance of taking down Kentucky. The duo combined for six 3-pointers against North Carolina. As a team, Auburn shot a sizzling 17-of-37 from long distance in the Sweet 16. Auburn continues to be one of the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting teams. No other team has made more 3-pointers (438) than the Tigers. Auburn has attempted at least 20 3-pointers in every game this season.
Auburn will have to figure out how to compensate for the absence of Chuma Okeke in the frontcourt if he is sidelined on Sunday. Okeke scored 20 points and collected 11 rebounds against North Carolina before suffering a left knee injury in the game's closing minutes. He underwent an MRI on Saturday. Okeke gives the perimeter-oriented team a valuable inside presence. He has averaged 15.8 points over Auburn's last four games.
Keys for Kentucky
In both wins over Auburn earlier this season, the Wildcats imposed their will around the basket. Kentucky outrebounded the Tigers 76-50 over the two games. The Wildcats have enough size up front with stars like Keldon Johnson, Reid Travis, and PJ Washington to manhandle Auburn. Washington has enjoyed some strong performances against the Tigers, averaging 18.5 points per game. He had 24 points and Johnson added 17 rebounds in Kentucky's 80-53 victory over Auburn in February.
The Wildcats need to get going on offense against Auburn. While Kentucky did shut the Tigers down in Lexington, it was a different story in Alabama. Scoring in the 60s likely won't cut it if Auburn starts to heat up on the perimeter. It will likely come down to Travis, Washington, and Johnson getting it done around the basket. Johnson and Washington are also two of the team's top 3-point shooters. The trio accounts for roughly 40 points per game combined.
Auburn has had a memorable run in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first team to take down Kansas and North Carolina in back-to-back games. The Tigers may have hit the end of the road in Kansas City. Kentucky has won 93 of 113 all-time games between the two schools. The Wildcats have Auburn's number and are physically more imposing and dominant. If Auburn's 3-pointers don't fall — and the Wildcats are a team that can lock the perimeter down effectively — the Tigers don't stand much of a chance to reach their first Final Four.
Prediction: Kentucky 81, Auburn 76
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.