Tigers Hoping to Make Run in SEC Tournament

Auburn opens play in the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament on Thursday in Nashville.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn's hopes for a successful run in the SEC Tournament will require a repeat of recent history.

Two years ago at the Georgia Dome the Georgia Bulldogs, playing without an opening round bye, won four straight games to win the tournament title and an automatic bid into the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

A year ago at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Mississippi State did the same thing.

Starting on Thursday evening at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Coach Jeff Lebo's Tigers will try to start a four-day run as the take on the Florida Gators.

Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CST as the 15-16 Tigers take on the 20-11 Florida Gators. Florida won the regular season matchup in Gainesville 78-70 on Feb. 18th. Auburn defeated the Gators in the opening round of last year's SEC Tournament.

On the plus side for the Tigers, Auburn has a deeper bench than Lebo's previous Auburn teams. Thirteen Tigers have played in 20 or more games this year and Lebo has gotten some significant help from subs at times this season.

"We've had our goods and our bads," he notes. "I think Earnest Ross, defensively, has been solid. I thought in the game against Alabama, (Ty) Armstrong did some nice things in there. It may not have shown up on the stat sheet, but he did some nice things. He was physical defensively. He was in the right spots, which sometimes he's not.

"(Andre) Malone hurt his shoulder in the game, and he really wasn't able to play much in that game," Lebo says of the freshman guard. "Kenny Gabriel did some good things in the game. He's made some shots coming down the stretch. He's missed a lot because of injuries, but they've had their moments. There has been nothing there. consistent

Freshman Earnest Ross, who started early in the season when Tay Waller was injured, is a key reserve for the Tigers.

"I think Earnest has been our most consistent guy there especially on the defensive end and rebounding the ball," Lebo adds.

For this year's SEC Tournament, the Kentucky factor is significant. The Wildcats, who have been tough to beat in SEC Tournaments over the years, enter the event ranked second nationally with a 29-2 record and are the heavy favorite to win the title.

"I've been in the league for a long time, as an assistant, too, when they were strong," Lebo says of the Wildcats. "The Kentucky fans engulfed the whole weekend. Typically, Kentucky does very well so they are there for the entire weekend. I think you are getting that same kind of feel back and it's close (to Lexington), too, being in Nashville, so that Kentucky presence is there again."

If Auburn, the five seed from the SEC West, can get past SEC East four seed Florida on Thursday the Tigers will take on SEC West champ Mississippi State in round two. Auburn just missed winning in regulation at Starkville this season before falling in overtime. At Auburn the Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 59-50 in the final regular season home game at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum last Wednesday.

With Kentucky in the other side of the bracket, if Auburn can get past Mississippi State the Tigers would take on the winner of a quarter-final matchup with Vandy facing the winner of a first round game matching Georgia and Arkansas.

However, the first order of business for the Tigers is a Florida team the Tigers knocked out of consideration for last year's NCAA Tournament.

"I think we are going to get a hungry Florida team," Lebo says. "I think they are looking at this as a game where they are not sure if they are in or out of the tournament so we will get a heck of a test from them."

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