Awaiting at Humphrey Coliseum will be a MSU team that is in the hunt for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed at the NCAA Tournament with an impressive 23-2 overall mark and a 12-2 record in SEC play.
The Tigers couldn't have picked a more difficult place on the schedule to try to snap out of a three-game losing skid, especially making the trip short-handed without leading scorer Marco Killingsworth. Coach Cliff Ellis suspended the junior for the game before the SEC had a chance to do it because Killingsworth threw a punch at Tennessee center Brandon Crump on Saturday night in Knoxville in response to being hit three times by Volunteer players. Killingsworth and Crump were both ejected from the game with 10 minutes left in the second half.
The loss of Marco Killingsworth will make it even tougher for the Tigers to pull off a big upset
Ellis says while the self defense instinct is understandable, Killingsworth was wrong to swing at Crump no matter what the circumstances were. The junior forward issued a statement on Monday saying, "I deeply regret the incident that happened at Tennessee on Saturday. Retaliation is wrong. I want to apologize to the University of Tennessee, my teammates, coaches and Auburn fans. I have worked hard for three years to proudly represent Auburn, and I would never do anything intentionally to hurt my school. I have not had this happen since I've been at Auburn, and it won¹t happen again."
The Tigers would have their hands full on Tuesday night even with Killingsworth making the road trip, but now the assignment is even more daunting as Coach Cliff Ellis and his 13-12 team tries to upset the Bulldogs. Brandon Robinson will move back into the starting lineup in Killingsworth's absence and the junior is coming off a strong showing at Knoxville where he scored 19 points and added 12 rebounds vs. UT.
Robinson and the Tigers will try to find a way to deal with Lawrence Roberts, the 6-9, 235 junior transfer from Baylor who is averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. However, he is one of just many scoring threats for the Bulldogs, who feature a strong starting five and a deep bench.
MSU also has one of the SEC's best guards in 6-2 senior Timmy Bowers, who is averaging 15.2 points and 4.4 assists. His running mate at guard, 6-4 junior Winsome Frazier, is having a big season, too, averaging 12.9 points per game while leading the SEC in steals.
Branden Vincent, a 6-8, 240-pounder, is having a productive senior season with averages of 7.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Shane Power, a transfer from Iowa State, is a 6-5 junior forward who averages 8.7 points and 4.4 rebounds to round out the starting lineup.
Ronnie LeMelle is expected to see more playing time for the Tigers Tuesday night.
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CST for a game that will be televised on ESPN. Auburn leads the series 65-55, but MSU leads 17-11 in games played at Humphrey Coliseum and has won six straight in the series after losing nine consecutive times to the Tigers.
Auburn gave Mississippi State a close game in the first meeting this year, but the Bulldogs pulled out a 73-68 road victory in a contest that was decided in the final seconds.
Ellis says his team is playing better now than it was earlier in the season because point guard Lewis Monroe is closer to his old self, however, he notes the Tigers have not been able to make enough plays to win in crunch time since upsetting LSU in Baton Rouge on Feb. 18th as they have seen their record slip to 4-10 in the SEC.
"We are probably where everybody else was around December," Ellis says. "We are playing hard and we are so close it is unbelievable. We are so close. A win is needed to get us over the hump. That is what is needed, but I like the way we are going. I think we have our unit set with Lewis at the point, Ian Young at the two, Quinnel Brown and I like bringing Nate (Nathan Watson) off the bench."
Basketball Notes: Ronny LeMelle, the forgotten man of the playing rotation, saw action and performed well vs. Tennessee. He scored seven points and added two rebounds in nine minutes on the court. Ellis says to look for the junior to play again vs. Mississippi State. The coach says that he wants LeMelle ready for action at the SEC Tournament set for March 11-14 because Auburn will have to win four straight games to get into the NCAA Tournament and to do that the Tigers will have to extensively use their bench. "I think it is almost impossible to go four days without great depth," Ellis says...With Killingsworth out for the MSU game, little-used senior forward Rodney Tucker is expected to see playing time vs. the Bulldogs...MSU clinched the divisional title with an 84-58 victory over LSU and won its last game, edging Vandy in Nashville 72-69...Ellis has an 11-10 record vs. Mississippi State, but AU's last victory vs. the Bulldogs was60-56 in 2001...Dave O'Brien and Larry Conley will call the game for ESPN.