Auburn is just 4-2 with both of its losses coming by just one point. If the Tigers had done a better job from the free throw line (55.4 percent and 77-139 on the season) and made better ball-handling decisions (111 turnovers, 18.5 per game) then these young Tigers could still be undefeated. The Tigers will have to fix their free throw problems and take better care of the basketball Saturday if they want to escape Birmingham with an upset.
"I don't think we will play anybody tougher the rest of the year than this Virginia team," Coach Cliff Ellis said. "They play a different game, but it's not different than us. Both teams like to get up and down. They like to press and both teams have great athletes."
The Tigers will have their hands full with a Virginia lineup that goes 10-deep and has five players averaging in double figures. The Cavaliers have used their run-n-gun style of play to average 93.5 points per game and force their opponents into 22.5 turnovers per contest. Auburn is not averaging nearly as many points as UVA, just 67.5, but the Tigers are forcing their opponents into 19.8 turnovers a game.
"Virginia is better now than they were when I was a freshman at N.C. State," Auburn guard Adam Harrington pointed out. "They were good then, but they are great now. It will be a real up-tempo game which is what we like to play, too, so it's going to be a game that goes up and down the court. Both teams like to press and trap so I think it's going to be a great game to watch."
One of those running Cavaliers for Virginia is Chris Williams, a native of Birmingham who was a prep star at Minor High School. He earned Alabama Player of the Year honors in 1998 when he led Minor to a 6A State Championship title and his success has continued on to Virginia. This season the six-foot-seven forward is averaging 19.3 ppg and shooting an astounding 71.1 percent from the field (27-38). He was on the All-ACC Freshman Team with Harrington in 1999 and won the league's Freshman of the Year award that season.
Both of Williams' parents attended college at the University of Alabama so there was not much Ellis could do to try and lure the talented player to attend Auburn. "The problem was he liked Alabama," Ellis added. "There really wasn't an interest in Auburn. They really didn't like Auburn too much, which is a trait of most Alabama fans."
Ellis said he was sure Williams would carry that dislike over to the this game for his Cavalaiers, who are led in scoring by junior Roger Mason. The six-foot-five guard is pouring in 21.8 ppg and Ellis said he was one of the premier guards in the nation. "I don't think he's a good player, I think he's a great player," the coach added.
Mason will likely go head-to-head with Auburn's Derrick Bird. The junior college transfer is quickly emerging as a team leader and defensive stopper for the Tigers. Bird held Louisiana Tech's top scorer Gerrod Henderson to just 1-of-14 shooting while scoring 26 points of his own. The six-foot-four shooting guard is leading the Tigers in scoring with a 13.7 average. Junior Marquis Daniels is the only other Tiger averaging in double figures at 11.0 ppg.
The trio of Bird, Harrington and Daniels scored 55 of the Tigers' 66 points in their loss to Louisiana Tech. That didn't bode well for Auburn's inside game which was almost non-existence against the Bulldogs. It forced the perimeter players to try to take over the game and the Tigers paid for it. In fact, AU had more three-point field goals (13) than it did two-point field goals (11) vs. Louisiana Tech.
The interior players for AU have to do a better job of converting their opportunities and snatching rebounds. The Bulldogs outrebounded AU 47-30 on Tuesday and Virginia comes in averaging nine more rebounds than its opponents. "We have to do a better job to win," Ellis said. "We don't have a chance without (rebounding)."
AU center Kyle Davis has done a solid job as a defender in the low post. He is averaging 4.7 blocks per game and had nine vs. the Bulldogs, but the six-foot-ten sophomore admits he along with his teammates have to a better job on the boards. "We just have to be strong and box out harder. That's about it," Davis said. "Sometimes when we go to box out, we tend to get pushed under a little bit, but we just have got to be stronger and hold our ground."
Davis will be battling for position underneath with UVA center Travis Watson. The six-foot-eight junior is undersized height-wise, but makes up for that with a 255-pound frame. Watson has the same type of frame that has given Auburn players fits all season long. He comes into the contest averaging a double-double with 10.8 scoring average and 10.3 rebound average.
The Tigers will take the week off following their contest on Saturday to focus on final exams. AU will resume action Saturday, Dec. 15, in Mobile when they play Marshall University in the Coors Classic. on the campus of the University of South Alabama in a doubleheader futuring USA and Georgia in the other game.