In fact, nobody promised Coach Cliff Ellis' club that it would be easy to win any games in the conference this year.
On Saturday at 3 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum, the Auburn Tigers, the team picked to finish last in the SEC West in the preseason, can win the divisional title if they can find a way to upset the 21st-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs. The game will be televised regionally by Jefferson-Pilot.
Auburn heads to Starkville coming off of a 69-54 homecourt victory over Arkansas on Wednesday. The Bulldogs lost 59-49 at Tennessee that same night to fall back to 8-7 in the SEC in a tie with the Tigers. The Bulldogs are 18-8 overall and Auburn is 19-9.
The last time the Tigers played a game with SEC title implications was when Auburn fell to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament finals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta when Marquis Daniels was a freshman. Auburn coach Cliff Ellis says it is tough to predict how his players will react in a pressure situation on Saturday, particularly as the road team. "You don't know that until you put them through it," he says. "Marquis has been there. He will have to be the leader."
Daniels, who is averaging 18.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, notes that Saturday's game has major implications for his team. "Playing for the championship is what we have been hoping to have a chance to do going back to the preseason," Daniels says.
A win earns the Tigers the SEC West No. 1 seed for the SEC Tournament in New Orleans next week and makes an NCAA Tournament bid a virtual certainty. A loss, however, will put the pressure on the Tigers to produce in New Orleans to help build a case for an NCAA berth even though Ellis contends the Tigers have done enough already.
"I have got to feel if we are going to finish first or second in the West, our league speaks for itself," Ellis says. "At worst we are going to finish in a tie for second (in the SEC West). In RPI, there is a gap between the SEC and the others."
In the first Auburn vs. Mississippi State matchup this season at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 19th, the Tigers played their worst offensive game of the year in falling 63-46 to the Bulldogs. Timmy Bowers, a 6-2, 180 junior guard, burned the Tigers with a career-best 25 points. He came out smoking and never really cooled, finishing 9-13 from the field including three of four on three-pointers.
Auburn's 46 points that night was not only a season low, it was the lowest output since the Tigers fell 68-42 to Temple to open the 1997-98 season.
The Tigers dug themselves a major hole by falling behind 35-19 at halftime. Auburn scored the first 10 points of the second half to pull within striking distance, but the Tigers couldn't get any closer as they struggled with their shooting down the stretch. For the evening, Auburn averaged making just one of three field goals while the visitors hit 49 percent of their shots. Daniels scored 17 for the Tigers and sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth added 11, but the rest of the team combined for just 18 points.
While Auburn loses homecourt advantage for the rematch, it gains a healthier Brandon Robinson, who was a big factor in Auburn's easy win over Arkansas on Wednesday night. Robinson tried to play with an ankle sprain in the first Mississippi State game and was a non-factor with no points and one rebound in 13 minutes of playing time.
Ellis says that Robinson's ankle "seems to be pretty much healed" and adds, "It makes a difference with our basketball team. We have more depth, we are a better rebounding team and we have more scoring presence."
Senior guard Derrick Bird says it is very important to the team to have a healthy Robinson in the lineup. "He rebounds so well for us and his energy means so much to this team," Bird says.
Mario Austin, a 6-9, 260 junior center, leads the Bulldogs in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.9). Bowers is averaging 14.5 points and 6-10 senior forward Michael Ignerski is averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds. The rest of the starting lineup features 6-3, 195 junior guard Derrick Zimmerman (8.6 points, 5.3 assists) and 6-5, 210 sophomore forward Ontario Harper, who is scoring 7.6 points and pulling in 5.2 rebounds.
Tiger Ticket Extra: Cliff Ellis, a former coach at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, has been named to Mobile's Sports Hall of Fame. Ellis says he is still very fond of Mobile where he got his first Division I head coaching job at age 29. "It is truly an honor because Mobile is a great sports city," Ellis says...Mississippi State has won four straight times vs. Auburn after the Tigers put together a nine-game winning streak vs. the Bulldogs...Ellis says his team needs a boost from reserve guard Nathan Watson, who has been fighting to break out of a shooting slump. Watson has not scored in the last two games and has not scored in double figures since hitting for 11 points eight games ago vs. Ole Miss. The Auburn coach says the sophomore did a good job rebounding and defensively vs. Arkansas. "We need that," Ellis says. "We need that play we saw earlier on."
The winner of the Auburn at Mississippi State game clinches the Western Division title outright and the West No. 1 seed for the SEC Tournament in New Orleans. Alabama (7-8) can clinch the West No. 2 seed with a win at LSU (7-8) on Saturday. If Alabama and Auburn are tied at 8-8 the teams would have split their season series and division records would both be at 6-4. Alabama's 1-1 record compared to Auburn's 0-2 record vs. Mississippi State would be the deciding factor. Alabama would be the West No. 2 seed and receive a first round bye for the SEC Tournament and Auburn would be the No. 3 seed and would play the opening day of the tournament. If Alabama and Mississippi State are tied at 8-8 the teams would have split their season series and division records would both be 6-4. Alabama's 2-0 record compared to Mississippi State's 1-1 record vs. LSU would be the deciding factor. Alabama would be the West No. 2 seed and Mississippi State the No. 3 seed. LSU (7-8) clinches the West No. 3 seed with a win over Alabama (7-8) in Baton Rouge on Saturday. If LSU and Auburn are tied at 8-8 Auburn would have a 6-4 division record and LSU would have a 5-5 division record. Auburn would be the West No. 2 seed and LSU would be the No. 3 seed. If LSU and Mississippi State are tied at 8-8 the teams would have split their season series so division record would be the deciding factor. Auburn would have a 6-4 division record and LSU would have a 5-5 division record. Mississippi State would be the West No. 2 seed and LSU would be the No. 3 seed.