Respect Slow In Coming For Basketball Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn basketball Tigers.

It was supposed to be a lost season. Even as Auburn's basketball team won 11 of 13 preconference games, it gained little respect. After all, the schedule wasn't exactly murderer's row. But suddenly, the Tigers are demanding to be noticed. They beat Vanderbilt at home to open the SEC season, then went on the road and beat Arkansas in Fayetteville for the first time since 1993.

What does it all mean?

It certainly means this Auburn team is significantly better than last season's Auburn team that went 12-16 overall and 4-12 in the SEC. It is far too early to say this is a team headed for big things, but the possibilities are there. Wednesday night's game at South Carolina is certainly winnable. Saturday's home game against Alabama, in front of a sellout crowd that is sure to be loud and emotional, is winnable, too. Win those two and the Tigers just might be poised to make a run to the NCAA Tournament.

After last season's meltdown, head coach Cliff Ellis patiently went about his business, paying little public attention to criticism of his schedule or rampant speculation he faced a win-or-else season. Ellis has done a good job. His players have done a good job. But as Ellis said this week, only a little more than 10 percent of the conference season has been played. The Tigers could still go either way. That's why the next two games are so crucial.

South Carolina, plagued by injuries, is not a strong team. The Gamecocks, however, have gone 7-0 at the Carolina Center, their glittering new arena. Alabama is the defending SEC champion and a very good team, but the Tide's No. 1 ranking earlier this season was a myth. From what I've seen, Alabama isn't a Top 10 team, much less the No. 1 team.

After those two games, Auburn goes on the road to play Kentucky and Georgia. It would not be realistic to expect wins in either of those games. They are followed by consecutive home games against Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU. If the Tigers win the next two, they have a realistic chance to be 7-2 and just two wins shy of the magic number for an NCAA bid. If they lose the next two, the odds become much longer, probably too long.

It's interesting to consider the team Auburn could be putting on the floor. Point guard Jamison Brewer would be a senior had he not opted for the NBA after his sophomore year. Adam Harrington would be a senior had he not left for an ill-fated try at the NBA after last season. Abdou Diame would be a junior, but he's gone to Jacksonville State. Australian guard Steve Leven looked like a future star but left this year after playing in one exhibition game.

Through it all, Ellis and his team have persevered. Senior Marquis Daniels and sophomore Marco Killingsworth are one of the SEC's top forward tandems. Sophomore forward Brandon Robinson has made a significant difference since returning from sitting out the first 13 games. Without him, Auburn might be 0-2 in the league.

Senior guard Derrick Bird has been solid on both ends of the court. Junior center Kyle Davis has done what he does, swatting away shots with regularity. Sophomore point guard Lewis Monroe has been steady if not spectacular.

Ellis fervently believes this sophomore class will accomplish big things for Auburn. He regularly says they are ahead of where the Doc Robinson-led class that helped win an SEC championship in 1999. There's no SEC championship in the cards this season, but with a few good bounces, the NCAA Tournament is not out of the question. And who would have believed that just a few weeks ago?

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