The coach's comments obviously didn't impress members of the media, who voted the Tigers to finish at the bottom of the SEC West in their annual preseason poll. However, Auburn was considered the "surprise team" of the conference last year with a second place finish in the division, a semi-finals appearance in the SEC Tournament and a run into the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. It took a one-point win by national champion Syracuse, which was playing in front of a wildly partisan in-state home crowd, to finally put an end to Auburn's 22-victory season.
This year the Tigers are getting more respect from the media. On Wednesday, media members voted Auburn to finish second in the division behind LSU. Mississippi State is projected to be third behind Auburn followed by Arkansas, Alabama and Ole Miss.
In the SEC East, defending league champion Kentucky is loaded again, according to Coach Tubby Smith. Media members agreed and picked the Wildcats to win the league, the first time that UK is the preseason number one pick since Smith moved to Lexington to take over as head coach. Florida is projected to be second in the division ahead of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina.
"After they got by us, Syracuse kind of walked through it to the championship," Ellis says. "I figured they would get to the Final Four, but after that I didn't know what would happen." Ellis says that the Orangemen are "well deserving" of their national championship, but notes that he would have loved to have seen his team play Syracuse at a neutral site. "That was an awesome crowd," the coach says. "If you were there you felt it. Perhaps if the game had been in Birmingham the shoe would have been on the other foot. I also would have loved to have another minute on the clock."
Ellis says the key for his team having a successful 2003-2004 season and making another run in the NCAA Tournament is to adequately replace last year's senior standouts Marquis Daniels and Derrick Bird. Newcomers Ian Young, Quinnel Brown and Ronny LeMelle are practicing well, he notes.
"I thought going in last year was the strongest I have seen our league (SEC), top to bottom," Ellis says. "I looked at our team and thought we were going to be pretty good, but I was thinking where could we go. Alabama was ranked number one and what Kentucky did, going 16-0, is just an amazing conference run. There were seven, eight or even nine teams that would just come at you. Even Ole Miss, which had a strong team, struggled in the league."
This year Ellis says Kentucky looks like the team to beat with its starting lineup returning from last year and good overall depth. He says Florida will be very strong in the East. LSU and Mississippi State look to be tough in the West, says Ellis, who points out that LSU had the "top recruiting class in the nation" and Mississippi State got "manna from heaven" with the late of addition of Baylor star forward Lawrence Roberts, who transferred from the scandal-plagued program in Waco, Tex., and is eligible to play immediately. Media voted Roberts to the All-SEC second team.
"Ole Miss has still got Reed (6-8 forward Justin Reed) and Harper (6-7 guard/forward Aaron Harper). Arkansas has got a year with (second year coach) Stan Heath and he had a heck of a recruiting year and Alabama is going to be one of those that is quietly back there that you will have to watch with Kennedy Winston, who can play forward for anybody."
Commenting on his team, Auburn's coach says, "I like their resiliency, I like their focus, I like the way the way they come to play and I like their love for the game. I think we are going to shoot the ball better. Defensively, we are working toward getting those guys who can shoot to play the defense the way they shoot it."
SEC Notes: Senior center Kyle Davis and junior forward Marco Killingsworth were voted to the All-SEC second team. For the AU women, who are picked fifth in the 12-team league behind Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Vandy, junior guard Natasha Brackett and senior forward Le'Coe Willingham are preseason second team All-SEC picks...Ellis says that Davis should be better with 20 extra pounds this year as well as good health in the offseason for the first time. The coach says that he believes there is no better shotblocker in the country than the senior center...With Davis and junior forwards Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson returning, the inside play should be the strength of the 2003-2004 team, Ellis says...Vandy's Matt Frieje was voted as the Preseason SEC Player of the Year by the media. The 6-9, 230-pound forward from Shawnee Mission, Kan., averaged 17.9 points per game as a junior.