As Auburn prepares to open league play at home on Wednesday night vs. Vanderbilt, the Tigers will bring an 11-2 mark into the contest plus more confidence than the 2001-2002 team showed despite a solid 8-3 preconference record.
One reason for more confidence is that the Tigers have won seven games by more than 20 points this season and five by 25 or more. With the exception of two poor performances in losses to Western Kentucky and Western Michigan, the Tigers have played much more consistently than they did a season earlier.
Senior guard Derrick Bird was a first-year player with the Tigers in 2001-2002 after transferring from Schoolcraft, a Michigan junior college. Bird and his team managed to win just four of 16 SEC games, but he sees better days ahead for this season's Tigers.
"We will be fine if we just keep playing our hardest like we have been playing," Bird says. "Being 11-2 is a lot better than last season and we need to just keep striving to be the best in everything we do."
Junior center Kyle Davis agrees and says, "We have pretty good momentum going into SEC play."
Keeping Davis out of foul trouble and making sure he is a factor on the boards and a defensive intimidator in the middle will be a key to Auburn's success. Last year, he was injured much of the season and his absence was definitely noticeable when the 6-10 leaper was not available. Compounding the problem was that Auburn's other top rebounder, Mack McGadney, was hurting, too, with a knee injury that forced him into early retirement.
Davis, who is just 22 blocked shots shy of breaking Mamadou N'diaye's school record of 241, is averaging 8.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He has the potential to improve on those numbers if he can stay out of foul trouble in league play.
Davis is part of the team-wide improved shooting trend. Last year the Tigers were the gang that couldn't shoot straight. This year, they have been near or at the top of the national statistics for field goal percentage. In contrast, last season they made just 41.8 percent of their field goals and only 59.3 percent from the foul line. Through 14 games, the numbers are up to 51.9 percent from the field and 64.6 percent at the foul line. Three-point shooting is way up, too, from 31.5 percent to 36.4.
Marquis Daniels is averaging just under 20 points per game this season for the Tigers.
Another key for the Tigers is keeping their main man healthy. Senior guard Marquis Daniels is averaging 19.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Both are team bests. Daniels, senior guard Bird and sophomore point guard Lewis Monroe are the three Tigers who have started all 13 games.
Bird continues to give opponents fits with his strong defensive work and is also shooting the ball much better. His average is up just slightly to 11.1 points per game, but he is getting his points with far less shooting. He is hitting 49.5 percent from the field and a very impressive 44.9 percent from three-point range. Last season Bird hit just 38.8 percent of his overall shots with a 30.9 percentage on his threes.
Monroe, who was redshirted early in the 2001-2002 season with a back injury, was pressed into duty last year when Lincoln Glass was first academically ineligible and then left the team. Monroe struggled much of the time as a freshman. He has had his ups and downs as a sophomore, but is playing more consistently than he did last season when he had almost as many turnovers as assists and was not an offensive threat. This year he has 49 assists vs. 26 turnovers and is adding 6.1 points per game. Monroe is coming off a 10-point performance in the 90-65 victory over North Texas State.
The Tigers are expected to go with their small starting lineup vs. Vandy that will feature 6-7, 235 sophomore Marco Killingsworth as the tallest Tiger. He is averaging 16.2 points and seven rebounds and is showing signs that he could be one of the most improved players in the SEC. Joining Daniels, Bird and Monroe in the starting lineup will be 6-3, 180 walk-on sophomore guard Nathan Watson from Fort Payne High School, who is contributing 9.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. The original plan was to redshirt Watson, who has played in just seven games, but that changed when freshman guard Steve Leven was dismissed from the team.
Watson has developed into a major outside shooting threat. For the season, he has nailed 18-34 treys for 52.9 percent and has helped take the defensive pressure off of Daniels.
Last season Auburn was out-rebounded by an average of 37.7 to 36.1 per game. Coach Cliff Ellis says the Tigers need to improve on rebounding this year even though they currently have a 39.2 to 32.2 edge in that department for the season.
Newcomer Rodney Tucker, a juco transfer forward, was expected to be a big factor on the boards for the Tigers, but so far he has been a disappointment. He is averaging just 10.2 minutes per game and 3.6 points and 2.0 rebounds. Tucker has been bothered by a back injury that has limited his mobility. Tucker has had an opportunity to be a big factor with forward Brandon Robinson sidelined due to questions about his eligibility. Robinson has missed all 13 games, but Ellis says that there is a good chance that the 6-8 sophomore will be available for the Vanderbilt game.
The Commodores come into the contest with a 7-4 record. Matt Freije, a 6-9, 230 junior forward, is averaging 16.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. He burned Auburn with 29 points in the last meeting, a 73-67 Vandy victory at Memorial Gym in Nashville on Jan. 16th, 2002.
The other projected starters for Coach Kevin Stallings are 6-9, 225 freshman forward Julian Terrell (4.2 points, 4.1 rebounds), 6-5, 230 sophomore forward Corey Smith (9.6 points, 3.3 rebounds), 6-5, 210 sophomore guard Jason Holwerda (6.2 points, 2.7 assists) and 6-0 junior guard Russell Lakey (6.5 points, 4.0 assists).
Vandy is shooting 46.1 percent from the field while Auburn's defense is allowing just 38.3 percent field goal shooting.
Tipoff time is set for 7 p.m. from Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum for the conference opener for both the Tigers and Commodores.
Game Notes: Cliff Ellis is 4-5 vs. Vandy while coaching at Auburn and 2-1 vs. Coach Kevin Stallings...Vandy has won all six SEC openers when the Tigers faced the Commodores to start SEC play. The last time that happened was in the 1988-89 season...Vandy leads the series with AU by a 72-48 margin...Auburn's current winning streak is five and the longest of the season...Auburn's weakest area much of the season has been with turnovers. The Tigers are committing 17.2 per game, but Vandy has almost matched that total at 17.1. The Tigers have improved on turnovers in recent games with a total of just 30 in their last three outings...Vandy is known for having good three-point shooting, but Auburn is averaging 36.4 from three-point land while Vandy is making 30.2 of its threes.