KANSAS CITY. MO. – Auburn didn’t celebrate advancing to the Elite Eight in the locker room postgame Friday. Players sat at their cubbies, dutifully answering media questions instead of jumping for joy.
A couple of hours later, Kentucky’s locker room filled with everything from country songs to Waka Flocka Flame’s “Grove St. Party” while freshman guard Keldon Johnson led a team singalong with a light-up microphone.
Auburn is going to just its second Elite Eight and first in more than 20 years. This will be Kentucky’s 38th appearance.
That juxtaposition is just one of many for No. 5 Auburn and No. 2 Kentucky, who play Sunday afternoon at Sprint Center for a chance at the Final Four in Minneapolis. The familiar Southeastern Conference foes have more differences than similarities. Some, like the choice in celebration, are based on circumstance, while others are more intrinsic.
When Kentucky held off Houston in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats reveled in star forward P.J. Washington’s comeback after two games out with a foot injury. But the Tigers lost one of their top players, sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, toward the end of their dispatching of No. 1 seed North Carolina.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Saturday that Okeke tore his ACL in his left knee and will undergo surgery Tuesday. The first time the players heard that news was when the coach announced it at the start of the news conference, and they were visibly disappointed.
Okeke was not only the third-best scorer, averaging 12 points per game, and the best rebounder, averaging 6.8, but he’s a favorite teammate. Meanwhile, Washington tops Kentucky with 14.8 points and 7.4 rebounds as the Wildcats’ clear catalyst.
“It’s going to motivate us, knowing that one of our soldiers [isn’t] able to be out there and battle with us,” Auburn senior guard Bryce Brown said. “On their side of the ball, I feel like Washington is kind of fresh, and he’s probably just eager to get out there and just ready to compete. So, we both have certain things going to motivate us.”
Pearl said his team will have to adjust how it plays without Okeke. And he also admitted the Tigers knew “the enormity of the challenge” even with a fully healthy roster. Kentucky, though, has already learned how to play without some of its leaders, like Washington and graduate student forward Reid Travis, which has only strengthened its depth.
“It’s funny, fate has intervened for this team where we thought it was bad,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Reid went down, he and I went to church together because we were worried, believe me. It didn’t turn out that way, but it gave Nick [Richards] and EJ [Montgomery] a chance to play. Then they tell me [Washington] hurt his foot at the Tennessee game. … Now all of a sudden we get to play Keldon at [power forward]. We get to put Jemarl Baker [in] and get him minutes. All of a sudden, it kind of plays out.”
Kentucky’s ability to grind out results until its injured players recover fits with its defensive playing style. But Auburn is a high-scoring, fast-paced team that’s been riding a momentum high for the past 11 won games. The Tigers aren’t unfamiliar with adversity, from junior forward Anfernee McLemore’s bad injury a year ago to players suspended because of FBI investigations. But the emotional hit of losing their MVP, as junior guard Jared Harper termed Okeke, at a potentially historic moment is a lot to handle.
Kentucky acted the confident favorite Saturday, with coach and players teasing each other and outright giggling throughout their news conference. It took Auburn a little longer to warm up, but eventually Brown cracked a big smile during one of his interviews, watching two of his teammates put up the two-finger bunny ears on an unwitting cameraman.
“Now to see my guys feel happy just lets us know that we’re going to play for Chuma,” Brown said. “And we’re going to play hard for him.”