Tigers Looking to Break Out Against Wildcats

Auburn, Ala.--Having scored no more than 57 points in a game since SEC play started, Jeff Lebo's Tigers (8-7 overall, 0-4 SEC) look to shoot their way out of their offensive slump as the Kentucky Wildcats (12-6, 2-2) roll into town for a nationally televised game on ESPN on Tuesday.

"Eventually the ball will start bouncing our way," says guard Ronny LeMelle, the team's only senior. "Everybody's been getting open shots but we're missing. Coach tells us to keep shooting because the only way to get out of a slump is to keep shooting.

"That's what everybody keeps doing and hopefully the ball will start bouncing our way," LeMelle adds. "He tells us to go out there, don't think about it and just play through it."

Part of the offensive woes in Auburn's 0-4 SEC start can be traced to turnovers, particularly by shooting guard Frank Tolbert. The 6-4 sophomore matches up athletically with anyone he faces, but has a reckless side and has committed 15 of Auburn's 44 turnovers in the last two games.

"You have to have a guy, most teams have two or three, who can make plays on his own when plays don't work," Lebo says of Tolbert. "He can do that. He just tries to do it on every play.

"I talked to him about his assist to turnover ratio which is just horrendous--20 assists to 50 turnovers," he adds. "He leads us in turnovers and he's only playing 22 minutes a game. Only playing half the game and he leads us in fouls. I love him to death because his effort is there, but his decision making and putting himself in tough predicaments is really hurting our team."

When Tolbert limits his mistakes and scores points the Tigers have a chance to compete with anybody, but that hasn't happened lately even though Lebo has stressed the importance of taking care of the basketball.

"At the beginning (of the season) when we were turning it over a lot he (Lebo) started making us run for turnovers in practice," LeMelle says. "Then we started taking care of the ball.

"Then he started doing it again the last couple of games when we started having a lot of turnovers," he adds. "Hopefully, everything is straightened out by Tuesday and we'll be back on track."

That might be easier said than done as the Wildcats, known for tough defense and this year being no different, come to town trying to get out of a slump as well.

"I think their strength this year is the defensive end," Lebo says of Tubby Smith's squad. "They're holding teams to a low percentage from the field. They're holding teams to a low percentage from the three-point line. Defensively they're very solid. It's hard to get good looks against them and they're rebounding the ball pretty well."

Rajon Rondo is a key player for the Wildcats.

Kentucky is coming off an 80-78 win over South Carolina in which point guard Rajon Rondo hit a fade-away three-pointer with a second left for the win. It was the first time in six games that the Wildcats had broken the 70-point barrier as they have struggled on the offensive end as well.

"They're a little like us in that they're still fairly young," Lebo says. "I think with a young player you don't really know how you're going to play in games. When you're an experienced guy, a junior or senior, you have a feel and understanding of how you're going to play in games and I think that's what they're fighting and we're fight it, too."

The Wildcats have a respectable 12-6 record, but it's not up to par with the usual Kentucky basketball standards. Lebo says that even though they're not playing as well as they have in the past, the Wildcats are still a tough team to beat.

"Kentucky's got a little bit of momentum after struggling a little bit to start the season," he says. "They seem to be playing a better or at least winning and had an emotional win in their last game against South Carolina.

"It's still a very good basketball team," Lebo adds. "As always their best thing is finding ways to win."

The Wildcats are solid at the guard spots with Rondo (13.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Patrick Sparks (7.6 ppg), as well as at center with Randolph Morris. The 6-10 Morris sat out the first 14 games of the season because of an NCAA suspension after a big mess with the NBA draft and several appeals with the NCAA. Morris is averaging 13.8 points and 5.3 rebounds since returning to the lineup.

With so many great forwards over the years in Lexington like Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker, Scott Padgett, or even Kelenna Azubuike and Chuck Hayes from last year's squad, this year's team lacks the same type of talent the Wildcats have had in the past at the three and four positions.

Sophomore Joe Crawford (9.3 ppg) and Sheray Thomas (4.3 ppg) round out the starting lineup for the Wildcats.

"They're a good team," LeMelle says of Kentucky. "We watched the tape of them Sunday. They've got their big man back and I know they have been struggled this year and they haven't been playing their best ball. We're looking forward to playing the game, a TV game, televised and everybody's all excited. We're trying to get our first SEC win and they're trying to get on track."

Because of ESPN, tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CST, an hour earlier than normal. Tickets are still available at the AU ticket office.

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