The Tigers, who had a chance to be the third seed in the SEC West going into the final week of the regular season, lost games to Georgia and Florida to drop to 4-12 in league play, which makes the Tigers the sixth seed from the West. Vandy is 10-6 in the conference and the third seed out of the SEC East.
Auburn, which hasn't won since beating Alabama 88-76 on Feb. 24th, has had success vs. Vandy in SEC play. The Tigers have won six of seven matchups vs. the Commodores, but fell 76-71 the last time those teams met in the conference tournament two years ago. Lebo's Tigers defeated Vandy 77-73 in the 2005 tournament.
Despite winning just four games in league play, Lebo says his group has played hard. "I don't have any questions about effort, our team has done that all year," Lebo says. "This year we are getting worn down a little bit. You can see our shooting has gone down the last three games. People are playing us with more zone and we aren't shooting the ball well."
Lebo says that to win most SEC games, Auburn has to be able to make shots from all over the court. The Tigers' lack of shooting accuracy in recent contests, coupled with rebounding deficits, explains why the Tigers have lost four straight games.
The Tigers are led by senior Quan Prowell who, in Auburn's last seven games, is averaging 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest. Prowell is playing his best basketball down the stretch, and is at his best when teams play a man-to-man defense against the Tigers. The toughest challenge for Prowell, and Auburn in general, has been staying out of foul trouble with Lebo generally using only a six or seven player rotation.
"With two fouls, I try to sit guys as much as I can," the coach says. "I can't do that now so I am risking a lot more putting them out there. Sometimes, I've played Frank (Tolbert) with three fouls and Quan with three fouls in the first half, risking them getting their fourth. I've never been in that situation where I have had to do that before, but that is the situation where we are."
Tolbert, Auburn's do-everything senior, scored a career high 32 points the last time the Tigers and Vanderbilt teams met, a 78-71 victory for the Commodores in Nashville. In that contest, Auburn shot well and was in the game until the final seconds.
Tolbert and junior guard Rasheem Barrett are averaging an identical 13.3 points per game this season, but their performances were extremely different in the regular season matchup vs. the Commodores.
"Frank played great that game," Lebo recalls. "His play really kept us in the game most of the game. He shot the ball really well so that was a plus for us.
"Rasheem didn't score a basket," Lebo says. "He was something like 0-9 in his 23 minutes that he had. He didn't play particularly well in that game. I thought our athleticism bothered them a little bit in that game, but they are so tough to guard."
Shan Foster, who scored 16 vs. Auburn in the first matchup this year, is one of the SEC's top performers.
Vanderbilt is led by Shan Foster (6-6, 205, G/F). The senior is leading the conference in scoring with his 20.6 points per game average. He also ranked in the top five nationally with four made three-pointers a game. He shoots 47. 2 percent from behind the arc, which is eighth in the nation.
"He (Foster) is having an unbelievable season," Lebo says. "With people knowing him and trying to take him out of his game, he is still shooting at a very high percentage and scoring a lot of points."
Another key player for the 'Dores this season has been freshman center A.J. Ogilvy. The 6-11 Australian is averaging 16.7 points per game and a team-high 6.8 rebounds. He scored 19 points and pulled down nine rebounds vs. the Tigers in their first meeting.
The winner of the first round matchup advances to a 2:15 p.m. CST matchup on Friday vs. Arkansas, the two seed in the West, which has a first round bye.