Tigers Have Work To Do In New Orleans

Auburn, Ala.--New Orleans is one of America's top tourist destinations, but for the Auburn basketball Tigers this week's visit to The Big Easy will be a working vacation.

When the Tigers take the floor at the Louisiana Superdome at approximately 8:45 p.m. on Friday they still have work to do if they want to finish what they started earlier this season when Coach Cliff Ellis' Tigers put themselves in position to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing the event the past two seasons.

The work order to be completed appears to a major one because the Tigers face a Tennessee team that came into Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and beat the Tigers 60-57 back on Feb. 1. The Vols, who are 17-10 overall and 9-7 in the SEC, feature the leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year in forward Ron Slay.

Auburn was originally scheduled to face the winner of a first round match pitting Arkansas vs. Georgia, but the tournament was re-seeded on Monday after the University of Georgia announced that it would not participate in the SEC or NCAA Tournaments this year because of irregularities in the Bulldogs' basketball program. UGA also suspended its head coach, Jim Harrick, and it appears unlikely that he will survive an investigation into his program by UGA.

Auburn, by virtue of its second place finish in the SEC West, has a bye on the opening day of the now 11-team tournament that starts with three games on Thursday. Tennessee, which moves up from the four seed out of the SEC East to the third seed, was scheduled to play Ole Miss on Thursday, but instead will receive an opening round bye before playing Auburn.

Coach Cliff Ellis

"It now becomes the second season," says Ellis, whose team brings a 19-10 overall record and an 8-8 SEC record to New Orleans. "The second season is short...and it is single elimination from here on," Ellis adds. "I think every player in America gets excited about their conference tournament."

Ellis calls league tournament time the second season and the NCAA/NIT Tournaments the third season. "I don't think there is any question we will be in the third season," the coach says. "It is up to other people to decide that should we not win the Southeastern Conference Tournament because that is where the automatic (NCAA) bid lies. Our focus is to go to the SEC Tournament and make the best showing we possibly can."

While there may not be a question that the Tigers will still be playing basketball after the SEC Tournament, there is a healthy debate on whether it will be in the prestigious NCAA Tournament or the much less-desired National Invitational Tournament.

A disappointing 67-45 setback last Saturday at Mississippi State ended the regular season on a sour note and kept the Tigers from winning the SEC West title and locking up a berth to the NCAAs. Now, at 8-8 in the league, the Tigers likely need to play some impressive basketball at the Superdome this week to solidify their NCAA bid credentials.

Senior guard Derrick Bird is averaging 9.9 points, but has scored 20 or more points in two of his last three games.

The Tigers took the day off from practice on Monday so the players have not had to switch gears from preparing for a matchup vs. Georgia or Arkansas as originally planned. Auburn won both of its regular season matchups vs. Arkansas. The Tigers defeated the Razorbacks 52-37 in Fayetteville on Jan. 11th and took the rematch 69-54 on March 5th in Auburn. The Tigers dropped an 85-79 decision at Georgia on Jan. 25th in the only meeting this season between the Tigers and the Bulldogs. Arkansas is a surprisingly disappointing 9-18 overall and 4-12 in the league. Georgia was expected to be strong this year and would have come into the SEC Tournament as the winners of six of its last seven games.

SEC overall champion Kentucky (26-3, 16-0), Florida (26-4, 12-4) and SEC West champ Mississippi State (19-8, 9-7) are considered locks to make the NCAA Tournament field. It will be a surprise if Tennessee, at 17-10 overall and 9-7 in the conference, doesn't make the tournament, too. LSU, which played strong basketball down the stretch, is likely to earn a bid at 19-9 overall and 8-8 in the conference.

Auburn, the other 8-8 team in SEC play, followed the opposite path in conference play. Auburn jumped off to a fast start in the SEC and led the division most of the season before slumping down the stretch. LSU struggled in January and looked like an extreme longshot to make the Big Dance, but a strong finish has changed that.

With the possible exception of Alabama, which finished 7-9 in the SEC and 17-10 overall, the other teams in the field would need to win the tournament in New Orleans to make the 65-team NCAA field.

Marco Killingsworth

Auburn will be led by senior forward Marquis Daniels, an All-SEC candidate with averages of 18.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Auburn's only other double figures scorer is sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth, who is averaging 13.8 points per game and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds.

Tennessee will be playing without one of its starters, Jon Higgins, who is academically ineligible. He averaged 8.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game and is one of UT's top outside shooting threats. Higgins and Slay were the only two Volunteers to start every game. Slay is averaging 21.6 points per contest and 7.7 rebounds.

Basketball Notes: All of the SEC Tournament games will be televised. The event will be carried regionally by JP Sports except for the championship game that will be played at noon on Sunday with coverage by CBS. There has been discussion of starting the event on Wednesday in the future and having the finals on Saturday, but Ellis says he doesn't believe that is the best way to do it because it can be difficult for fans to get away from their jobs to attend the event if they would have to miss three business days to follow their team...Auburn has played six games in the Louisiana Superdome and won just two. Auburn is 1-1 there in SEC Tournament games. The Tigers have an all-time record of 20-19 in games played in New Orleans...Former Tiger center Bill Alexander (1968-70) will represent the university as a star from Auburn's basketball past, a feature of every conference tournament. Alexander averaged 13.4 points and 12.1 rebounds his senior season and 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds for his career.

With the re-seeded tournament, on Thursday the tournament will open at noon in the Louisiana Superdome with Ole Miss (SEC West No. 5 seed) playing South Carolina (SEC West No. 4). The winner of that game will play Mississippi State at noon on Friday. In the 2:15 p.m. game on Thursday, Arkansas (SEC West No. 6) will play LSU (SEC West No. 3). The winner of that game takes on Florida at 2:15 p.m. on Friday.

The the other half of the bracket, Vanderbilt (SEC East No. 5) will play Alabama (SEC West No. 4) at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. The winner of that game faces Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. The 8:45 p.m. game will not be played with Georgia out of the tournament. Auburn was scheduled to meet the winner of that contest, but will instead take on Tennessee. If Auburn should defeat the Vols, the Tigers would likely finding No. 1 seed Kentucky waiting in the semi-finals at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday. The finals are at noon on Sunday.


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