Basketball Tigers To Play Biggest Game Of Season

The Auburn Tigers will try to keep their first-place spot in the Western Division when they face the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Auburn, Ala.--The biggest game of the 2002-2003 season for the Auburn Tigers, and maybe any season since the 1999-2000 season, will take place Wednesday at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum when the Mississippi State Bulldogs come to town.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. with first-place in the SEC West on the line. Both teams enter the game with identical 6-4 records in the conference, but come into the game moving in different directions as a team.

Struggling to get over the hump in the tough SEC, Auburn has dropped four of its last six games to keep its postseason dreams on hold for a little longer while the Bulldogs have won six of their last seven games after starting conference play 0-3. Led by center Mario Austin, this Mississippi State team is going to be a tough matchup for the Tigers

"Mississippi State is an excellent basketball team and they have proven that," Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said. "They are probably the hottest team on the western side at this point. They have a veteran team. This is a very good Mississippi State team. We're going to have to play a great basketball game. It should be a game everyone should be excited about."

Coach Cliff Ellis

Austin, an Alabama native playing what is perhaps his final game in the state, leads the Bulldogs with his physical style of play. Averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, the 6-9, 260 center is considered by many the top big man in the league and one of the top players in the country. A Naismith Award nominee, he will be a challenge for the Auburn defense, but senior guard Derrick Bird feels his team is up to the task at hand.

"It's going to be tough because they have been shooting well from the perimeter as well," Bird said of the Bulldogs. "That makes it a little tough when we double down, but whatever coach's plan is we're just going to follow it. It's going to work because we have confidence. We've had a few slip-ups this year, but we've been playing well overall this year. This is a big game and we're at home. I think we've got it going for us."

Derrick Bird and the Tigers are looking to regain sole possession of first place in the SEC West.

Austin isn't the only player the Tigers have to be concerned with on Wednesday. Junior guard Timmy Bowers has emerged as one of the top scorers in the league and comes in averaging 14.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He makes 42 percent of his shots from behind the arc and will likely draw the attention of Bird, Auburn's top defender.

Big forward Michael Ignerski, a native of Poland, brings the international style of play to the SEC with his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter and run the floor. He averages 10 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and has made 55 percent of his shots from the field the last seven games. Rounding out the starting five for MSU is point guard Derrick Zimmerman, who is third in the SEC in assists at 5.2 per game, and defensive stopper Ontario Harper, who averages 7.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest.

The Tigers are looking to get Marco Killingsworth back in the groove as a scorer.

The Tigers will pin their hopes on finding the shooting touch after a dreadful performance Saturday night against archrival Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Making just 34.9 percent of their shots from the field for the game and a paltry 10-of-33 from three-point range, Auburn will have to bury some shots from outside the paint to give forward Marco Killingsworth some space to work Wednesday night. That has been a problem for the Tigers in their recent games with the leading field goal percentage shooter in the league managing just an average of eight shots per game in the last six contests. He must touch the ball more around the basket against the Bulldogs or it could be a long night for Auburn.

Center Kyle Davis could be a big factor against MSU because of his physical presence under the opponent's basket. The all-time leader in blocked shots at Auburn, he must stay out of foul trouble and on the boards for the Tigers. The boards could be the difference in winning and losing as evidenced by the two games last season between Auburn and Mississippi State. Losing twice to the Bulldogs, Auburn was outrebounded 93-52 in the games, something that must change if the Tigers hope to come away with the victory.

Auburn's fortunes could depend on the health of sophomore forward Brandon Robinson. A spark for the Tigers since his return just before the SEC schedule, Robinson is nursing a sprained ankle and is questionable for Wednesday night's game. If he's unable to go junior college transfer Rodney Tucker will have to pick up the slack in the middle and helping Davis and Killingsworth with Austin in the paint.

After playing the Bulldogs, Auburn will return to action Saturday at 4 p.m. when the Tigers travel to Oxford to face the Ole Miss Rebels at Tad Smith Coliseum. The game can be seen live on Fox Sports Net South. There is no television coverage of Wednesday night's game.

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