Winners of four straight games before falling 68-51 at Ole Miss Saturday, Florida is perhaps the most balanced team in the SEC. Leading the way for Coach Billy Donovan is the top post player in the league, Udonis Haslem. Averaging 16.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, the 6-9, 246-pound monster in the middle controls the lane for the Gators and has been especially tough against the Tigers. Last season in a 65-63 win in Auburn, the senior burned Auburn with 26 points to lead all scorers.
But Haslem isn't the only Gator who Auburn has to be worried about. At 6-10, 237 pounds, junior Matt Bonner is perhaps the most underrated player in the league. Capable of scoring inside and out, he is averaging 16.4 points per game and also grabs 7.3 boards per contest.
On the perimeter the Gators feature Brett Nelson making plays from end line to end line. Averaging 14.8 points and 3.4 assists per game, the former point guard turned shooting guard is averaging 3.1 three-pointers per contest and will have to be kept in check for the Tigers to have a shot at an upset at the always tough O'Connell Center on the Florida campus.
Rounding out the starting lineup are junior point guard Justin Hamilton and sophomore small forward Orien Greene. Averaging 8.5 points and 4.0 assists per game, the 6-3, 207-pound Hamilton has been a solid addition to the lineup this season when he was called on to replace departed Teddy Dupay. Greene, a solid defender and scrappy scorer, averages just 5.3 points per game. In reserve, the Gators have potential stars in David Lee, James White and LaDarius Halton. All provide solid minutes off the bench and give Donovan depth that is unmatched in the league.
"Florida is a great team," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "When you look at probably your entire schedule, you would have to say that perhaps on paper it might be the toughest game you face from the standpoint that they've always been in the Top 10 and Top 5 for most of the year. It's one of the tougher places to play. They are coming off a loss to an Ole Miss team. I know that is going to get their juices flowing. So with all that I know that we're going to have to go in knowing that Florida is going to come out and try to play relentless basketball. They always have."
"Their experience inside and on the perimeter makes them one of the premier teams in America. Haslem, what a career he has had. He's as good of a low post player as there is in the league. Bonner is an extremely good compliment. Brett Nelson--great play on the perimeter...we're going to have to go in and make sure we take care of the basketball. They are a team that is going to press and get up and down the floor."
Turnovers were part of the story Saturday in Starkville, but that doesn't begin to tell the whole story of how bad the Tigers played in an 89-53 loss to Mississippi State, a loss in which the Tigers trailed 32-7 at one time. Committing 27 turnovers would be bad enough, but add in a 48-24 rebounding deficit and 39 percent shooting from the field and you have an embarrassing performance. Looking to rebound won't be easy for this young team as it travels for the second straight game after enjoying the comfort of home for wins over Georgia and Ole Miss. After getting smacked in the mouth, it will be interesting to see how this team reacts in Gainesville.
Once again Ellis will employ the newcomer lineup with junior college transfer Derrick Bird starting along with four true freshmen. Averaging 11.5 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, Bird is the old man of the Tiger starting unit. Joining Bird on the perimeter are point guard Lewis Monroe and shooting guard Dwayne Mitchell. Averaging 2.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, Monroe has been solid but must continue to improve his offense for the Tigers to make it to the next level. The same is true of Mitchell, who is averaging just 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds this season. Both must show some offensive life Wednesday night or the Tigers could be in for a world of hurt.
Inside freshmen Brandon Robinson and Marco Killingsworth team up to give Ellis a formidable duo in the paint. Averaging 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, Robinson has steadily blossomed into a solid post player and has shown signs of an ability to light up the scoreboard. That would be helpful on Wednesday night as would increased minutes out of Killingsworth. Averaging 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in just over 20 minutes of action per game, the Montgomery native must avoid foul trouble because he is Auburn's best match for Haslem inside.
Coming off the bench for the Tigers will be Marquis Daniels, Adam Harrington, Abdou Diame and Kyle Davis. All former starters, the foursome should provide solid minutes Wednesday because of their experience playing on the road in the SEC. Despite not starting the last four games, Daniels still leads the team in scoring and Harrington had a team-high 15 points Saturday in Starkville.
Tip-off for Wednesday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m. central time and can be seen regionally on Jefferson-Pilot Sports. The Tigers return to action Saturday when they are hosts to the South Carolina Gamecocks at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
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