For Mississippi State, this game is a pivotal one as the Bulldogs try to remain in line for an NCAA Tournament berth. Without a strong non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs must keep winning in conference play to ensure themselves a bid on Selection Sunday.
For the Tigers it's all about the NIT at this point unless they run the table at the SEC Tournament. Looking to get a bid to the newly expanded 40-team field (previously it was 32 teams), Auburn likely needs to finish with a .500 record overall and that means winning at least one game on the road before the season is complete. With games left at Florida and Alabama, this is likely Auburn's best chance at that elusive win.
However, it won't be easy as the Bulldogs dealt the Tigers fits in their first meeting of the season and pose potential problems for an inexperienced Auburn team. First and foremost is at center where big Mario Austin is a man-size headache for any team he faces. At 6-9, 265 pounds, the York, Ala., native is averaging 15.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season and had one of his better efforts of the year against Auburn back on Jan. 30 when he had 19 points and 10 rebounds in a 72-64 State win.
"I've said all along that I think this is the best team since 1996 at Mississippi State," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "I like their team. They've got a veteran team. (Marckell) Patterson, (Michael) Gholar, (Derrick) Zimmerman, guys like that have been around a while. Mario Austin, I think he's a premier big-time, inside player. I think you'll be seeing him play on Sundays or whatever days the NBA plays. I think they are a strong team. We're going to have to play well. It was a very physical game here, very physical game. I think that's something we're going to have to get ready to go into Starkville and understand how physical this game can be."
While Austin gets most of the publicity, the trio of Patterson, Gholar and Zimmerman has done its share of damage as well this season. Averaging 13.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists, the 6-5 Patterson has come into his own as a senior and is now one of the better players in the league. Gholar, although he averages just 7.1 points, contibutes 6.2 rebounds per game and is the top defender for the Bulldogs. Running the show for coach Rick Stansbury is Zimmerman. The 6-2 junior averages 8.9 points and 3.7 rebounds plus he leads the league in assists at 6.0 per game.
The fifth starter for State is 6-9, 225 Michael Ignerski. The native of Poland is a solid outside shooter who averages 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
To counter the Bulldog attack, Ellis will lead his band of youngsters into battle. Starting four true freshmen and a junior college transfer for the third straight game, he hopes to continue to capture lightning in a bottle. With wins over Georgia and Ole Miss to show for the new lineup, the Tigers take to the road for the first time since the change and that could pose problems for the inexperienced squad.
At the point will be Lewis Monroe. Averaging just 1.6 points and 2.4 assists per game, the Madison, Wis., native is coming off his best game when he had career highs in points (seven) and rebounds (six) along with dishing out five assists.
At shooting guard will be Derrick Bird. Averaging 12.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, Bird enters after an outstanding performance against Ole Miss Wednesday when he had 17 second half points to key the Auburn win.
At the other guard is Dwayne Mitchell. Averaging 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds the New Orleans native had a breakout game Wednesday with 12 points and an inpsired defensive effort against Rebel star Justin Reed.
Trying to handle Austin in the paint will be the combination of Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson. Averaging 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game between them, the freshmen duo give the Tigers some solid scoring threats both in the paint and on the perimeter, but must continue to improve their defensive skills as the Tigers head down the home stretch of the 2001-2002 season.
Coming off the bench for the Tigers will be three key reserves in Marquis Daniels, Adam Harrington and Abdou Diame. Former starters, Daniels and Harrington provide the Tigers some offensive punch off the bench while Diame gives Ellis some size to spell Killingsworth in the paint.
Also available this game is shot-blocking phenom Kyle Davis. Fresh off a one-game suspension for "fighting" in the Georgia game, Davis will be a big help when facing Austin and company in the paint because of his penchant for changing shots from opponents.
Tip-off for Saturday's game is scheduled for 2 p.m. and there is no television coverage. The Tigers return to action Wednesday night when they travel to Gainesville to face the Florida Gators.