The Tigers will face the Georgia Bulldogs at noon CST time at the Georgia Dome in the opening game of the four-day event. If Auburn wants to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers will have to play all four days and win the championship game. To have a chance to do that, the Auburn coach will need to take advantage of a bench that has played a lot of minutes this year.
Nine different players have started this season for a team in which no player has started all 27 games for the Tigers, who are 14-13 overall and 5-11 in the conference.
Marco Killingsworth, a third team All-SEC pick at forward, has started 25 times. Guard Nathan Watson has 23 starts, forward Brandon Robinson has started 20 times, guard Ian Young 17 times, forward Quinnel Brown has started 15 times while center Kyle Davis and guard Lewis Monroe each have 13 starts. Center Dwayne Curtis has started five times and guard/forward Ronny LeMelle has had four starting assignments.
If the opening game is played at a fast pace, Auburn should have a depth advantage over 15-12 Georgia, which has a strong starting five, but has not gotten much help from its reserves.
The Bulldogs are led by 6-3, 190 senior point guard Rashad Wright, who Ellis says is deserving of All-SEC honors because of his abilities as a shooter, ball-handler and defensive player. Wright is averaging 14.3 points, three rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He was named to AP's All-SEC Second Team on Tuesday.
Three other seniors are featured in the UGA starting lineup. Damien Wilkens is a 6-7, 220 forward who is averaging 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. Jonas Hayes is a 6-8, 240 forward averaging 12 points and five rebounds. Chris Daniels is a 6-7, 220 forward averaging 10 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Levi Stukes is a 6-1, 180 freshman guard who is averaging 9.1 points and 2.6 rebounds. If Coach Dennis Felton has to go to the bench, the leading inside player is 6-8, 230 freshman Steve Newman, who is averaging 2.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. The top guard is 6-4, 185 freshman Buzz Wehunt, who is averaging 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds.
Killingsworth, who averages 13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, is expected to come off the bench for the Tigers for a second straight game after serving a one-game suspension for taking a punch in Auburn's game at Tennessee. Robinson has taken Killingsworth's spot in the starting lineup the past three games and produced double-doubles in each to improve his averages to 12 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
AU's other scheduled starters are Young (10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds,, 2.5 assists), Brown (7.4 points, 3.1 rebounds), Monroe (6.4 points, 3.4 assists) and freshman Curtis (2.7 points, 2.1 rebounds).
Reserve help is expected from Watson (7.5 points, 2.7 rebounds), Davis (6.8 points, 7.0 rebounds), LeMelle 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds) and possibly Tucker (0.9 points, 0.7 rebounds) or Lollar (1.9 points, 1.3 assists).
Part of the reason for having nine players with starting experience has been because of injury problems. All of the Tigers, with the exception of point guard Monroe, are 100 percent going into the tournament.
"I still have pain, but I am learning to deal with it," says Monroe, who broke a bone in his foot in preseason. He says the rehab has been "frustrating" because it is going a lot slower than he wants, but says, "I am getting better every game."
Monroe helped the Tigers play well in last year's SEC Tournament in New Orleans and in the NCAA Tournament in Tampa, Fla., and Albany, N.Y., and will be counted on again as the Tigers try to make an unlikely run to the SEC Tournament title in Atlanta that would include an automatic entry into the NCAA Tournament field.
SEC Notes: Auburn defeated Georgia 57-54 in their only meeting this season on Feb. 7th at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum...AU's SEC Tournament record is 21-23 since its renewal in 1979 and AU is 25-40 in all SEC Tournament games...AU leads the series vs. Georgia 84-82 and has a 9-5 edge in games played at neutral sites...The winner of Thursday's game faces Kentucky, the SEC East winner, in round two...Tom Hammond and Larry Conley are the announcers for the game that will be televised by Jefferson-Pilot Sports...Former Tiger star forward Charles Barkley will be honored as part of the SEC Legends program at this year's tournament...AU is 4-5 all-time in basketball games played at the Georgia Dome...Ellis, who is 14th on the all-time Division I victory list for active coaches with 534 wins, has a 7-9 record in the SEC Tournament. AU's best finish under Ellis came at the Georgia Dome as runnerup to Arkansas in 2000...Auburn and Georgia have not played in the SEC Tournament since the Bulldogs won 65-60 at Baton Rouge back in 1988...Auburn and Georgia played the longest game in SEC Tournament history on March 1, 1979 in Birmingham when the Tigers defeated UGA 95-91 in four overtimes. Bubba Price led the Tigers with 28 points and Bobby Cattage added 21...Georgia has won four of its last six games and has a 7-9 SEC record...Ellis says the key for success vs. Georgia is to play better defensively than the Tigers have in recent games.