Tigers Looking To Win Big Cat Fight

The Tigers will be trying to become top feline when ninth-ranked Kentucky comes to town.

Auburn, Ala.--Cliff Ellis' team will not have any time to enjoy their 80-68 upset win in Baton Rouge over the 24th-ranked LSU Tigers because Tubby Smith is bringing his ninth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats to town on Saturday.

The Tigers, much like everyone else in the SEC, have not had a lot of luck taming the Wildcats historically, who hold a dominating 77-17 advantage in the series including a 20-9 mark at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. However, with a team that seems to be gelling chemistry-wise and offensively, Auburn is hoping to knock off the SEC's perennial powerhouse.

"Well, I think anytime you play a team of Kentucky's magnitude it is always a tough game, a hard game and you have got to play a great game because they are a team that is a Top 10 team," Ellis says. "They have been ranked as high as number one. So, it is always a huge game when you play a Kentucky. We are going to have to make sure we come off that win (LSU) in the right way and come right at Kentucky because they are going to come in here ready to play after a good win for them against Arkansas."

Brandon Robinson's improved play led the Tigers to a victory over LSU Wednesday night. He will be a key for Auburn against an athletic Kentucky squad.

Heading into the homestretch the Tigers, who are 13-9 overall and 4-7 in the SEC, will have to face some pretty stiff competition and conventional thinking would tell you that is bad news for a team that needs to pick up quite a few wins for any real NCAA Tournament hopes. However, Ellis says that things are not always as they seem.

"Well, our backs are to the wall," Ellis explains. "We can look back over the long haul and say injuries, lineup changes and chemistry from injuries and all that, but the bottom line is when you get to this time of year you need to win. And as I've said before I think we would have a couple of wins in the column if we had our team healthy, but that's not the case and that is unfortunate. But, at the same time you look at the schedule going into last night and say egad, you have got LSU, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi State, just about basically ranked teams.

"That really works out to be fortunate for us because if we are going to get back in this thing we need to win against ranked opponents and we do have a tough schedule, but we are healthy," Ellis notes. "I don't think we will ever be totally healthy until the season is over, but we are healthier than we have been all year and we need to have this kind of schedule, but we need success with it. It sounds crazy, but it is the truth."

However, if the Tigers are going to make any type of run for postseason play they will have to hold serve at home against the Wildcats, who are 18-4 overall and 8-3 in the league. And as Ellis explains the Wildcats will be bringing a strong roster with them to Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum when they visit, like they always do.

"I think Kentucky is a team that is strong inside," Ellis says. "(Gerald) Fitch when he is healthy, and I am assuming that is the case, he has been a premier outside shooter. He gives them that outside threat. (Cliff) Hawkins is the type of point guard you see running that team and penetrating and running your break.

"Then you have got guys like (Antwain) Barber and (Kelenna) Azubuike on the wing that have really gotten a lot of time and probably confidence from Fitch being out. So, they are very strong."

Fitch could be the key for the Wildcats, who should be back to full strength from a finger injury that led to him missing three games, as he is averaging a team leading 15.4 points per game. The senior guard is also a career 39.3 percent three-point shooter.

Inside Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes carry the load for the Wildcats. Daniels, a 6-8 senior forward, is averaging 15 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. While Hayes, who is a 6-6 junior, is putting up 11.1 points per game and pulling down 8.3 rebounds.

At the point UK relies on the Hawkins, who as Ellis notes can do it all. The 6-1 senior is averaging 9.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and is second in the SEC with both 5.3 assists and 2.41 steals per game.

Heading into the game one big time battle will be on the inside and Ellis says that is how it should be in the SEC. "The strength of our team is the inside game," the coach says. "I think in basketball as a general rule of thumb that is where the game has the initial focal point on, the inside presence, and I think both teams have that. I don't know how it will turn out. I think both teams, if you look at them, seem to have experience and strength inside."

One big positive for Auburn fans may be that statistically the Tigers and Wildcats seem to be very evenly matched.

The Wildcats are a bit better offensively scoring 71 points per game to Auburn's 69.7 and defensively both teams are only allowing their opponents 62.6 points. The Wildcats hit 46.3 percent of their shots from the floor to Auburn's 45 percent, but the Tigers are out-shooting Kentucky from behind the three-point arc 33.2 percent to 32.9 percent. On the boards the Tigers are a bit better grabbing 37.2 rebounds per game to UK's 35.2 and both teams have been pretty sloppy with the ball with AU averaging 16.5 turnovers to UK's 15.2.

Even with what seem to be pretty evenly statistically matched teams, Kentucky is still the ninth-ranked team in the country and it will take a strong game from the Tigers to pull the upset. If that is going to happen they will have to control the boards, take care of the basketball and hit some open shots against the zone Kentucky will likely drop into.

Despite their less than stellar record, the Tigers' coach says that he has seen quite a different team over the last two weeks than the one that dropped to 2-6 in the conference with an ugly 74-52 loss at Arkansas.

"I really like the way we played the Georgia game," Ellis says. "From the time that we played that game, the last couple of weeks we seem to not have been hobbling around and limping and looking like you are limping and we just seem to be coming out of that. The Georgia game is really the first time I had seen that. The Ole Miss game I felt the same and against LSU it seemed to be there."

The Tigers and Wildcats will tip off at 1 p.m. and there will be a pregame tribute to Auburn's long time play-by-play announcer and Kentucky graduate Jim Fyffe, who passed away last May. There are still tickets remaining for Saturday's contest, but for those who can't make it the game will be televised by JP sports With Dave Baker doing the play-by -play and Larry Conley handling the color duties.

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