Tigers And Dogs Both Hungry For Win

Two basketball programs that are struggling with a lack of depth and overall talent will face-off in Georiga's Stegman Coliseum on Saturday.

Auburn, Ala.--Two programs on the rebound from probation and personnel losses are set to do battle at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., at 3 p.m. CST on Saturday as the up-and-down Tigers take on the struggling Georgia Bulldogs.

Auburn enters the game at 12-12 overall, 3-8 in the SEC after a 24-point home loss to Vanderbilt. Georgia, at 7-15 overall and 1-10 in league play, are losers of seven straight.

"I wouldn't consider this a true Southeastern Conference game by any stretch of the imagination, but you'll see two teams out there that are going to battle and compete," says Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo.

"This game is probably not going to be the prettiest thing that you ever did see," he notes. "It's two teams that are in situations that are very similar, trying to dig out of some holes with the programs. Georgia is in year two of it with NCAA issues, sanctions and really have a team decimated by that."

Head Coach Dennis Felton is in year two of rebuilding the Bulldog program after being handed four years of probation for violations ranging from academic fraud to improper benefits under former head coach Jim Harrick.

Dennis Felton

Although the Bulldogs are just one scholarship short for each of the next three years, they're still struggling with depth after losing Chris Daniels, Rashad Wright and others from last year's team, as well as leading scorer Levi Stukes this season because of an ankle injury.

In the 2004 SEC tournament Stukes hit a tournament-record eight threes against Auburn, but without him the team has struggled this season to find consistent scoring.

"It's frustrating for Dennis, and I think he's done really well with his team," Lebo says. "He knows he's going to be out-manned almost every night like we feel like we are most nights. I think he's been positive with his kids and he understands the process. It could be very frustrating. Dennis won a lot of games at Western Kentucky and had a pretty good year last year with some leftover guys."

In Georgia's 59-42 loss to Clemson Wednesday night, Felton only used five scholarship players.

Lebo, in year one of rebuilding the Auburn program, is one scholarship short for the next two seasons due to rules violations under former head coach Cliff Ellis. In Auburn's 74-71 win at South Carolina on Feb. 12, Lebo also used only five scholarship players and just two players off the bench, one a former manager and the other a current Tiger football player.

"We're in year one of it," he says. "It's going to be a long, hard process. I think a lot of the time--and Dennis is feeling it--that year two is much more difficult than year one. It's frustrating for him, I know, to not be able to win more games.

"It's frustrating for me, and it's frustrating for his kids knowing that they're out-manned most nights," Lebo adds. "I do know this--both teams are going to play hard and they're going to do what coach asks."

While Stukes is out with an injury for Georgia, Auburn's Ronny LeMelle is out of action for the season with a torn MCL and Brett Howell is out indefinitely with mononucleosis.

Georgia, which is averaging only 61.6 points per contest, will likely start four freshmen and a sophomore against the Tigers.

"They've got (Sundiata) Gaines who is a very good player, who is probably the leading scorer with Stukes out, and (Channing) Toney--two freshman guards who are very talented players," Lebo says. "They're getting valuable playing experience right now. They're the two leading guys."

Gaines is averaging 11.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and three assists per contest. Toney is averaging 10.6 points, three boards and 1.5 assists. Also expected to start in the backcourt for Felton is Kevin Brophy, who is averaging just four points per game.

"Inside they play a variety of people," Lebo notes. "(Steve) Newman is probably the most experienced guy in there. They're very physical and they do have some size and weight in there. When the shot goes up they're going to box out every time. They're not going to be afraid to bang you in there. Defensively, it's going to be a very aggressive game. They're very solid defensively. Offense is where they've struggled--knock on wood--to this point."

The leading rebounder for Georgia is 6-10 starting center Dave Bliss, with 5.4 per game.

With a pair of road games at Kentucky and Alabama and home games against LSU and Arkansas remaining, Saturday's game against the Bulldogs will likely be Auburn's best shot at a win down the stretch. For Georgia, Auburn may be the best chance for a win for the rest of the season as well.

"When you talk about Georgia, you have to first talk about defense," Lebo says. "I think they're one of the best defensive teams in the league. You look at what they do with the man-to-man. They take pride in their defense and Coach Felton spends a lot of time working on that.

"The team, by their record, has struggled but they've played a tough schedule," he adds. "They're looking at this game against Auburn as a game they think they can win. It's a game at home and they're a team that's always physical, tough and aggressive."

Tipoff for Saturday's contest is set for 3 p.m. CST and the game will not be televised.

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