Anfernee McLemore has been through this circus plenty of times before.
But there still might not be a perfect way to prepare for it.
The Kentucky game is here, and with it has come big TV trucks coasting onto the Plains, and countless cameras that’ll send every move of the game out to audiences nationwide, plus all the extra attention that has followed the mighty Wildcats for years.
As a senior, McLemore has seen this show several times over, though he still might not have the perfect answer on how to handle it.
But he knows what not to do.
“Just don’t give in to the pressure of the moment,” he spoke from experience.
McLemore said that Thursday in front of a more crowded media room in Auburn Arena. Just outside the room, stacks of boxes carrying equipment and countless cables were already piled up, as ESPN crew members buzzed busily around them working to prepare the arena for Saturday’s spectacle. ESPN’s College GameDay bus was on its way to Toomer’s Corner outside.
Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. on ESPN, and even before that, the network is set to broadcast its basketball version of its GameDay show from Auburn Arena starting at 10 a.m.
But there is one thing a little different about all this attention this time, and about this media circus that has for so long followed Kentucky around like SEC basketball’s Beatles.
This time, Kentucky isn’t the only team bringing in eyeballs.
This time, Auburn has earned plenty of attention in its own right. Auburn is 18-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC while Kentucky is 16-4, 6-1.
And it’s Auburn that won the last game between these teams — on the grand stage in the NCAA Tournament.
“When we played them in the Elite Eight, we had a different mindset going in than we did when we went into their place,” McLemore said, going back to last season when he was asked what he’d tell one of the team’s freshmen about this game going into their first matchup with Kentucky. Auburn lost badly to Kentucky last year in Rupp Arena. The Tigers didn’t lose again until the Final Four — beating Kentucky on the way there for surely the greatest win in Auburn basketball history.
“We kind of felt like we were on a roll when we went to Kentucky, but when we came to the Elite Eight, we just came to play basketball, and play good basketball, and win,” McLemore said. “So as long as nobody's focus is on the lights or ESPN coming in or anything like that — just play our brand of basketball, I don't think anyone will have a problem as far as executing our gameplan.”
Kentucky will unload a line of all-stars stepping off the bus curbside at Auburn Arena today. Forward Nick Richards leads the team in scoring with 14.4 points, also averaging 8.3 rebounds per game and even 2.4 blocks. Immanuel Quickley averages 13.8 points per game. They were both McDonald’s All-Americans. So were Tyrese Maxey and EJ Montgomery. And star point guard Ashton Hagans leads them on the court.
“We’re excited about the challenge,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.
Auburn enters on a three-game winning streak, having survived Ole Miss in double overtime after a 19-point comeback on Tuesday night. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt at home on Wednesday night to win its fourth straight game.
The Wildcats are playing their second game against a Final Four team on back-to-back Saturdays. Kentucky beat Texas Tech 76-74 in overtime last weekend, on the road in Lubbock, Texas.
This isn’t new for the eight-time national champions, who saw Texas Tech fans pack their own arena last weekend only to be sent home disappointed.
But this game marks another move forward for Auburn.
And with a win, the Tigers can try to make this kind of ordeal more common on the Plains.
“Obviously we worked really hard for College GameDay to come to Auburn,” Pearl said Thursday as those ESPN workers sorted cables outside and as the buzz started to build. “It’s a significant step in the direction of our program. We’ve tried to recruit so much with ‘come to Auburn and make history,’ because you go to a lot of great programs and you can add to great history, but you can’t really make it because it has already been made so many times. Here you can make it.
“After the Final Four run some teams would just kind of maybe, ‘Hey, been there and done that,’ especially when we had some guys returning. We’re staying humble. We’re staying hungry. This group is trying to make history. We’ve got to play better to be able to do that.”