Unfamiliar Territory for Tigers on Saturday

Auburn (17-13, 7-8) plays at Ole Miss (18-11, 7-8) at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be televised on Lincoln Financial Sports. The Rebels won in Auburn on Feb. 3 82-59. Alabama and Mississippi State, both 7-8 in the SEC, play at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Auburn, Ala.--In such a competitive league every year with rivals up and down the schedule, every SEC game is "important." The youthful Auburn Tigers have played so-called important games at Rupp Arena or against the No. 1 Florida Gators, and they've played important games against rival Alabama.

Saturday's game at Ole Miss, however, has more meaning than any other collegiate game for any player on the Auburn roster as the Tigers have a chance to win the SEC West.

"We approach it like every other game," head coach Jeff Lebo explains. "That's what you have to do in these situations. You can't prepare your team any differently for a game, and that's just my belief. The kids all know what we're playing for. We told them the last couple of games that we're playing meaningful games here at the end of the year and this is what it's like."

The Tigers go into the game with the mindset that they're playing for the title and a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta. But they're also playing for second... possibly third... possibly fourth... and maybe even fifth depending on what happens in Nashville and Starkville over the weekend.

Ole Miss, which could also end up anywhere from first to fifth, was picked in the preseason to battle it out with Auburn to not finish last. However, LSU has already clinched that spot while the rest of the division jockeys for postseason position.

"We're playing an unbelievably odd situation where the Ole Miss versus Auburn game is for a share of the SEC West Title," Lebo explains. "It's odd in basketball how things change in two or three weeks. Things have certainly changed for us to be in this situation. The kids have worked hard and they're deserving of this. Hopefully we'll go in there and play well in a tough situation, a tough environment on the road against a very good and very experienced basketball team on senior day."

It's a different situation for the Auburn program, which hasn't reached the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT since 2002-2003. The 2006-2007 team looked like it was going to continue that streak as it dropped four consecutive games and were 4-8 after the loss at Georgia on Feb 17. Since then the Tigers have won the last three and the chips have fallen into place as no other team in the league has taken control of the division.

"I think the real turning point was that we stayed together during that time and our practices leading up to the Georgia game were good," Lebo notes. "We played well at Georgia and didn't win. In many ways I thought we played better at Georgia than we did against Arkansas at home or when we won at Alabama. We did a lot of good things."

At worst the Tigers will finish 7-9 in the SEC, a league record that has gotten other teams into the NCAA. If Auburn's RPI has anything to do with postseason bids, it might take winning SEC Tournament for an automatic bid as the Tigers' RPI is currently last in the conference at 101st.

"I don't understand the RPI and how we could be so (low)," Lebo says. "We've played some teams that have been in the lower echelon, but we beat Tennessee and we beat Vanderbilt, who is up there, and we beat Alabama twice. I just don't understand how we cannot be higher in the RPI. It befuddles me.

"It's not all they look at and it's just one indicator. I can't believe that we can be that much lower than everybody. I think we've got the (lowest) RPI in the league and we're going to compete for a championship tomorrow. Go figure that out."

While the math formula of 25 percent winning percentage, 50 percent opponents' winning percentage and 25 percent opponents' opponents' winning percentage might damper the Tigers hopes for some reason, it would be hard to ignore a team that went 8-8 in possibly the toughest and deepest conference in America.

"It's certainly going to be a big game," Lebo explains. "Ole Miss got us pretty good and played awful well. They've got senior day and it's going to be an emotional day for them. It's a game obviously with championship game implications and they're very tough to beat at home. They're 14-1 at home this year. Just one team in the SEC has beaten them at home and that was early and it was Kentucky. We're going in playing awfully well and we'll see what happens."


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