The stakes could be even higher this time. That Auburn team, though struggling after the suspension of Chris Porter, had already made its place. This one could still go either way. The Tigers and Bulldogs are tied for first in the West with 6-4 Southeastern Conference records. For Auburn, Wednesday's game could set the course for the rest of the season.
Since a 4-0 start, the reality of playing in the SEC has set in. Auburn has won two of its last six. Expectations were unrealistically low for this team going into the season. Perhaps they became unrealistically high after the fast start that included road wins over Arkansas and South Carolina. All the Tigers have guaranteed themselves so far is a good enough record to merit an NIT bid. A victory over the Bulldogs, winners of five of their last six, could go a long way toward earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
After Wednesday, Auburn plays Ole Miss and LSU on the road, Arkansas and Florida at home and finishes the regular season with a trip to Mississippi State. It needs at least two more wins, perhaps three, to get into the NCAA Tournament field. Saturday night's visit to Tuscaloosa didn't help matters. The Tigers, dared to shoot from the outside by Alabama's zone defense, fired away. They shot mostly blanks until it was too late. Alabama, hitting shots it had missed consistently for the past month, raced to a 41-23 halftime lead and won 84-66.
It was a much-needed win for Alabama and a lost opportunity for Auburn. The Tide was reeling going into the game, but the outcome shouldn't have been a surprise. What was a surprise was the lopsided final score. That hasn't happened often against Alabama since Cliff Ellis became Auburn's coach. Even last season, when Alabama won the SEC championship and Auburn finished last, the Tigers took the Tide to the final seconds in Tuscaloosa. Auburn fell behind by 26 points midway through the second half Saturday. A frantic comeback cut the gap to 11 with three minutes left, but the mountain was just too tall.
When it was over, Ellis dismissed talk about the significance of Wednesday's game against Mississippi State. He stuck to the party line that it is just one of 16 games and they all count the same. It's true, of course, that they all count the same, but this one is different. The Tigers need to make a statement, to others and themselves, that they really are the team they once appeared to be. Though Alabama was ranked No. 10 when it lost at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, Auburn has yet to beat a conference team with a winning league record.
With the schedule that remains after Wednesday night, a loss would make the road to the NCAA Tournament significantly more difficult to travel. In watching this team play 23 games, 10 of them against SEC teams, I have developed some definite opinions. I don't for a second claim they are expert opinions, but take them for what they are worth:
*Marquis Daniels is one of the great all-around players in Auburn history. He can get himself a decent shot almost anytime he chooses. He can rebound, shoot and defend. He can play power forward or he can play point guard. If I had a vote for SEC Player of the Year, he'd at least be near the top of the list.
*Center Kyle Davis, though his struggles on offense are sometimes bewildering, is a difference-maker on defense. His mere presence in the lane changes the way teams play offense.
*Lewis Monroe is steadily improving and will be an above-average SEC point guard before his career is over.
*Auburn needs to get the ball to Marco Killingsworth inside more than it does.
*Though the statistics often don't show it, Derrick Bird does as many things to help his team win as any player on the floor.
*I believe Ellis is right when he says his sophomores--Lewis Monroe, Killingsworth, Nathan Watson and Brandon Robinson--will have some big-winning days before they leave Auburn.
Until next time...