Toughest Week For Auburn Basketball

Auburn faces road tests at Kentucky and Georgia, the only other teams unbeaten in SEC play.

Auburn, Ala.--Cliff Ellis pondered the question, looked at his team's schedule, thought for a few moments and nodded affirmatively.

With road tests on Wednesday against a very hot Kentucky team and on Saturday against a very hot Georgia squad, Ellis says this is the toughest week on the 2002-2003 Auburn basketball schedule.

His surprising Tigers go into the games after breaking into the national rankings for the first time this season at No. 24 in the AP poll. Kentucky is ranked eighth and Georgia is 19th. Ellis says the Wildcats are certainly a Top 10 team and adds that he thinks the Bulldogs are better than their current ranking.

Ellis and his 15-2 Tigers will face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season when they try to knock off Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Wednesday. Tipoff is 6 p.m. CST for the game that is televised regionally by Fox Sports Net South. Auburn is 4-0 in the SEC and Kentucky is 3-0 and 13-3 overall. Saturday's opponent, Georgia, is 10-4 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.

"I think they are both playing as well as they can," Ellis says of the Wildcats and Bulldogs. "I watched Kentucky play Vanderbilt and Notre Dame and I was saying, ‘How can Kentucky expect to play any better?' Then I watched Georgia and I said, ‘How can you expect them to be playing any better?' How can you expect Auburn to be playing any better than they are playing right now?"

Marco Killingsworth is one of four Tigers who scored 13 points in Saturday's victory over Alabama that put the Tigers 4-0 in the conference.

Auburn is going for its 10th consecutive win and a third straight SEC road victory.

Coach Tubby Smith's team is 13-3 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. The Wildcats come into the contest on a seven-game winning streak since falling 115-87 on the road at in-state rival Louisville's home court on Dec. 30th. The Cats knocked off nationally-ranked Notre Dame 88-73 on last Saturday as UK took an early break from SEC competition.

The Wildcats are getting a big senior season from 6-5, 213-pound guard Keith Bogans from Alexandria, Va. He is averaging 17.2 points per game, 3.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Ellis is impressed with Bogans. "From his freshman and sophomore year I knew he could really get it to the hole," the Auburn coach says. "What he has really done is he has really worked on his outside shot."

Kentucky has three other starters averaging in double figures. Junior guard Gerald Fitch, 6-3, 188, is hitting for 11.9 points and 2.4 assists. Senior center Marquis Estill, 6-9, 236 pounds, is averaging 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. Erik Daniels, a 6-8, 214 junior forward, is averaging 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds.

While the national ranking is expected for the Wildcats, Auburn's jump into the Top 25 has been a surprise to many. Ellis says he thinks the Tigers belong there based on how they are currently playing coming off a 77-68 victory over archrival Alabama. "In my opinion, if you beat a Top 10 team, you deserve it," he says. "That is the way that I look at it. If there was any question, you beat a team that was No. 1 in the country and they were ninth in the country--and it was a solid win now. Go back and look at it. It wasn't one of those half court shot wins."

Ellis says the victory over Alabama on Saturday has been well received by Auburn fans. "This team has already shown a lot," he says. "The biggest game to the Auburn people was a convincing win. This group has helped do something that is unparalleled in Auburn basketball history and that is to win the way they have been winning against Alabama and that means a lot to our people."

Wednesday's game at Lexington and Saturday's at Athens, Ga., are part of a three-game stretch against Top 25 teams. It is just the third time in school history the Tigers have faced such a challenge. In 2001 the Tigers tamed 14th-ranked Alabama 72-69 and lost to 12th-ranked Ole Miss 64-62 and 15th-ranked Kentucky 90-78. In 1991, the Tigers lost 114-93 to 13th-ranked Kentucky in the final regular season game, beat 16th-ranked LSU 92-77 in the SEC Tournament and lost to 24th-ranked Alabama 77-59.

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