"They are very good," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis says. "There is no question about that. When you look at our league it has been a strong year for our league this year. When you look at the RPIs we've got like three teams that are in the Top 10. A lot of people have a strong RPI and this Alabama team is one that is certainly playing extremely well.
"They have great players and they are experienced." Ellis adds. "Dudley, Grizzard, Walker and Meade have been starting...this is their third year starting. It's paying dividends for them...I know with the SEC title on the line outright it will be an emotional game. We're going to have to go in and play a great game and I know our players will go in ready to play."
Derrick Bird has been strong on defense, but inconsistent with his shooting.
Leading the way for Coach Mark Gottfried's club, winners of nine of their last 11 games, is junior center Erwin Dudley. Averaging 15.7 points and a league-leading 8.9 rebounds per game, the 6-8, 260pound Dudley will be a load for the Tigers to handle with their limited depth in the paint. That challenge gets even tougher when you add in improved Kenny Walker to the mix. The 6-9, 230-pound junior is averaging 8.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game but always seems to come up big when Auburn is the opponent.
On the perimeter the Tide has one of the more versatile players in the league in Rod Grizzard. The 6-8, 200-pound junior is averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game on the season, but has struggled somewhat in conference play with his consistency, particularly from the perimeter. Making just 26-of-109 three-pointers this season, that number falls dramatically as he has just six made threes in conference play.
At the other guard spots Alabama has solid complementary players in Terrance Meade and freshman sensation Maurice Williams. Averaging 9.0 points per game and 3.1 rebounds, Meade is considered a streaky shooter and can light up the scoreboard in a matter of minutes if his shot is right. On the other hand, Williams is a lightning-quick playmaker who can control the Alabama offense like a seasoned veteran. With 130 assists and 76 turnovers on the year, he is a threat to make both positive and negative plays for his team.
For the Tigers this game is all about how they handle things on the road. Without a win on an opponent's home court this season, Auburn has come close several times but lately it has been blowout city for the Tigers when they leave the friendly confines of Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. With a 36-point setback at the hands of Mississippi State and a 28-point loss to Florida, the Tigers are looking for something positive to happen on away from home and Wednesday night is the last chance for the 2001-2002 season.
That means winning at a place Auburn hasn't had much success winning in the past--Coleman Coliseum. The Tigers have won just once in their last 10 trips to Tuscaloosa, but most have been down-to-the-wire games. In fact, seven of the last 10 have been decided by an average of just 3.4 points per game. If Auburn is to have any chance at playing in the NIT without winning the SEC Tournament, a good start would be to upset the sixth-ranked Crimson Tide on their home floor where they currently have a 17-game winning streak and are 33-1 the last two seasons.
To do that Auburn needs a solid performance on both ends of the floor from junior Marquis Daniels. Struggling since being replaced in the starting lineup four games ago, Daniels hasn't gotten his touch back from the field and that will be needed both from the perimeter and in the paint against Alabama. Averaging 11.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, the jack-of-all-trades will play the power forward position once again as depth problems in the paint have him moving back inside where he finished last season. Helping him out underneath is budding playmaker Marco Killingsworth. Averaging 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, the freshman from Montgomery gives the Tigers some muscle inside and that will be important against the older and stronger Alabama team.
On the perimeter the Tigers will once again go with the size and athleticism that Derrick Bird, Dwayne Mitchell and Lewis Monroe bring to the floor. Standing 6-4, 6-4 and 6-5, the trio give the Tigers an added dimension of rebounding and defense that has been important for the team since the trio earned their first start together against Georgia on Feb. 9. Averaging a combined 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds on the season, they have stepped up their play with more playing time and have given Ellis a solid nucleus on the perimeter both offensively and defensively.
Kyle Davis will be coming off the bench vs. Alabama.
The biggest concern from the trio is the lack of production from Bird of late. Just 4-for-25 from the field his last three games, the junior college transfer must give the Tigers some shooting from the perimeter to alleviate the strain on Daniels and Killingsworth inside.
The Tigers also rely heavily on their bench with Adam Harrington and Kyle Davis giving key minutes in reserve. Against South Carolina, Harrington led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points in 29 minutes of action while Davis chipped in eight points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. Both should continue to receive plenty of action as the Tigers look to pull off the unthinkable in Tuscaloosa.
The Tigers wrap up their regular season when they are hosts to the LSU Tigers at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum Saturday at 1 p.m. The game will be a fight to stay out of the cellar in the SEC West and improve seeding for next week's SEC Tournament in Atlanta.