When the Tigers take the court Thursday at 6:30 p.m. CST in the opening round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament, Cliff Ellis will be coaching just seven scholarship players.
You could fill out a starting lineup with the former Tigers missing in action. The exodus started in the offseason when point guard Jamison Brewer jumped ship to join in the NBA. Another guard, Lincoln Glass, was unavailable early in the season due to academic shortcomings and unavailable late after being dismissed from the squad for violation of team rules.
Guard Lincoln Glass is gone.
Seven-foot center Marin Bota checked out in preseason and transferred to Ohio University in search of more playing time. If he would have stayed, he could have found plenty of playing time at AU, especially after Abdou Diame got the boot from the coaching staff and Mack McGadney hung up his sneakers for the season after suffering knee, shin and foot injury problems.
The Phantom Five could even have a quality sixth man with Kyle Davis. The SEC's leading shot blocker will be a spectator on Thursday as he recovers from a broken bone in his wrist from an injury in the regular season finale, a disappointing 59-54 homecourt loss to LSU.
That setback dropped the Tigers to 12-15 overall and 4-12 in the SEC, the league's worst record by two games. It also got the Tigers a first round SEC Tournament date with 11th-ranked Florida, which as Ellis points out, is not the caliber opponent you normally expect to see in your bracket on the opening day of a conference tournament.
The Gators are 21-7 overall and 10-6 in the conference with one of those wins coming Feb. 20th in an 89-61 blowout victory over the Tigers in Gainesville.
With six-foot-10 Davis sidelined, junior Marquis Daniels will likely resume a role he played last year and get some playing time at power forward. Daniels has played point guard, two guard and small forward this season and leads the Tigers in scoring at 11.2 points per game. He also averages 5.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
Marquis Daniels is going to be counted on as a rebounder vs. Florida.
"With Kyle not there to alter shots, we are going to have to play better position defense," Daniels says. "A lot of times we rely on him knowing he's back there and he can block a shot or alter a shot. We are going to have to play more team defense and can't gamble as much."
Dwayne Mitchell is a freshman starter for the Tigers.
Daniels is joined in the starting lineup by freshman forward Marco Killingsworth and three guards--junior Derrick Bird and freshmen guards Dwayne Mitchell and Lewis Monroe. Bird is averaging 10.7 points per game, but his biggest contributions have been on defense. Mitchell tried to play the point early, but struggled in that role and is now playing the two and three spots but not scoring much. The 6-4, 195-pounder is averaging just 3.3 points and 2.4 rebounds. Point guard Monroe is hitting for 2.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists. In contrast, Killingsworth is a scoring machine at 7.9 points per game. The left-hander also averages 4.3 rebounds.
Adam Harrington needs to have a big game for Auburn to pull off the upset vs. Florida.
The key reserve is junior Adam Harrington, who is averaging 10 points and 3.2 rebounds. but capable of producing much bigger numbers. Freshman Brandon Robinson, who has been slowed with a knee problem, is averaging 8.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. After those two, Ellis has to pull a walk-on off the bench for further depth.
As was the case in last year's SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee, Donny Calton will get the call for help inside. The six-foot-six forward has played in 11 games this season and is averaging less than a point per contest. Guard Nathan Watson is averaging 2.0 points per game, but the walk-on has seen his playing time disappear late in the season.
Florida is not playing particularly well down the stretch, but is a heavy favorite to advance to the quarterfinals when it meets the depleted Tigers. Matt Bonner, a 6-10, 237 junior forward, leads the Gators in points with 16.4 per game and is second in rebounding with 7.2 per contest.
Auburn will struggle to find a matchup with 6-9, 246 senior center Udonis Haslem, who is averaging 15.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Guard Brett Nelson, a 6-4, 182 junior, is averaging 14.6 points and 3.3 assists.
The two other expected Gator starters are Orien Greene, a 6-4, 200 sophomore guard, and Justin Hamilton, a 6-3, 207 junior guard. Greene averages 5.4 points per game and Hamilton 8.6 points per contest.
"I think Florida is as good as anybody in this tournament," Ellis says. "We are going to have to play a great game."
The Auburn coach adds, "We will come up with some plan and we will go in there and battle."
Derrick Bird is a key defender for Auburn who has been inconsistent with his scoring.
Tiger Ticket Extra: Florida is 6-6 in its last 12 games...Auburn has lost two straight games and four of its last five...The winner of the Auburn/Florida game will play at 6:30 p.m. CST on Friday vs. Mississippi State, the No. 2 seed in the West...Auburn is 4-4 all-time in games played in the Georgia Dome...Auburn and Florida have met four times in SEC Tournament play with each team winning twice. Auburn won the last such meeting, 78-70 two years ago in the Georgia Dome with McGadney leading the way as an All-Tournament pick. Auburn advanced to the tournament finals that year before losing to Arkansas...Look for Auburn to play some non-standard defenses in attempt to confuse the Gators and slow down a high-powered attack that averages 81.4 points per game to Auburn's 65.6...Auburn holds an 86-60 lead in its all-time series vs. Florida...Former Auburn player Bobby Cattage will be part of the SEC Basketball Legends ceremony. Cattage was an All-SEC power forward for Auburn in 1979 with averages of 15.9 points and 9.3 rebounds, but injuries set him back during his junior and senior seasons...The game will be televised regionally by JP Sports with Tim Brando, Barry Booker and Dave Baker covering the action.