Tall Task For Tigers In Lebo's SEC Debut

Auburn, Ala.--With a surprising--make that very surprising--nine wins under their belts in November and December, Jeff Lebo's Tigers open SEC play with a challenging road test at Mississippi State on Wednesday night.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum, where the Bulldogs will be waiting with a 12-2 record and national rankings of 18th and 22nd.

First-year Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo started the season very short-handed and gets to conference play even more so with Ronny LeMelle still trying to come back from his third injury in the past year and point guard Ian Young hoping to bounce back from an ankle sprain.

Young is expected to be ready for action on Wednesday after missing Auburn's last pre-conference game, a 73-69 victory over the Belmont Bruins on Dec. 30th.

"Practice is very interesting," Lebo notes about his team's lack of depth to go with its lack of size. "There is not a whole lot out there."

Auburn has been faced with physical matchup problems all season. The Bulldogs, with a front line featuring 6-9. 235 Lawrence Roberts and 7-0, 255 Marcus Campbell, is expected to be a real headache for Lebo and the Tigers. Lebo says he is impressed with those two players along with the three guards in the MSU starting lineup--6-5 Shane Power (10.3 points, 4.1 rebounds), 6-4Winsome Frazier (14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds) and 5-11, 170 Gary Ervin, who averages 8.0 points and 5.9 assists per game.

However, the big matchup problem will be with Roberts, who averages 18.4 points per game and 11.6 rebounds. He is probably the most talented player in the SEC. Seven footer Campbell will enjoy nearly an eight-inch size advantage on Quinnel Brown, who has been covering post players for the Tigers. Campbell averages 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds.

"I would like to say we need to work on our inside defense, but we are what we are," Lebo says. "We have got to continue to execute a little better. I think you will see us play a little differently once we get into conference play a little bit because we have to.

"Inside we are going to have to find a way to discourage the ball from going in there, but a lot of times when you do that it means you are sloughing off perimeter people. When you slough off perimeter people, it gives a look inside to make passes so you are kind of in a Catch 22 situation."

Auburn has managed to put together a 9-4 record with a combination of good shooting in most games, particularly from three-point range, with lots of intensity on defense.

"I am pleased with the effort," Lebo says. "They are competing every day. I can't be more proud of the group. To be where we are now is a tribute to those kids out there, who are the smallest team in Division I basketball."

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury says, "Auburn is a different type of team, and has five guys who can shoot the three-pointer and that makes it a difficult team to defend. They have great ability to score offensively. They are a very difficult matchup."

Auburn leads the series 65-56, but has lost its last seven games to Mississippi State after winning nine in a row vs. MSU.

Freshman guard Toney Douglas, who is averaging 19.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, leads the Tigers in scoring. Young is next at 16.8 per contest and is followed by Brown at 13.5 and Nathan Watson at 11.1 per contest. Watson is averaging 5.6 rebounds while Brown leads the Tigers with 6.7 rebounds per contest.

The Tigers will be a huge underdog vs. the Bulldogs on Wednesday as they will be in most SEC games. "Any win for us is a great game," Lebo says. "It is going to get hard from here on out."

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