Auburn, against whom the Commodores open conference play on Wednesday, was a Sweet 16 team in the 2003 NCAA tournament. Currently the Tigers own a 9-2 record, with the losses coming to UNLV on the road, 82-69; and to Georgia State at home, 77-72. Eight of their wins have been at home (Charleston 66-62, Western Kentucky 86-64, Maryland-Eastern Shore 85-61, Colorado State 84-54, Air Force 68-49, Montana 73-51, Southern Mississippi 78-60, and New Orleans 70-55). The 95-56 victory over Grambling occurred on a neutral court in Huntsville, Ala.
The Tigers suffered a damaging loss to the team before the season started, when point guard Lewis Monroe, a 6-5 junior, went down with an injury. Monroe averaged 6.2 ppg and 3.1 assists last year; not great statistics, but he handled the ball well, worked hard, and stayed calm in NCAA play. He returned in the New Orleans game, but played only three minutes and may not see much action against Vanderbilt.
In Monroe's absence, Coach Cliff Ellis has turned to 6-3 junior Ian Young, a junior-college transfer from Des Moines Area Community College. Known more as a shooter than a ball-handler, Young has averaged 9.4 ppg and 2.8 assists. He turns the ball over only 1.8 times per game, and is making 45.5% of his 3-point shots.
6-3 junior Nathan Watson actually has had more assists than Young (3.1 per game), and has been even steadier with the ball. He is scoring 9.5 ppg and connecting on 35% of his threes. Last year, Watson averaged 5.9 ppg but, like Monroe, played very well in the three NCAA games.
Ronnie LeMelle, a 6-5 junior who transferred in from Western Oklahoma State (a junior college), plays over 20 minutes per game and is scoring 8.3 ppg. To date, he has made 60 percent of his treys! Troy Gaines, 5-11 junior, is scoring only 4.2 ppg but has the reputation of being able to score a lot of points when he gets hot. Chris Lollar (2.5 ppg) is a 6-0 senior who plays about 15 minutes per game at point guard.
Auburn's main scoring threats are power forward Marco Killingsworth, a 6-7, 235-pound junior, and wing forward Brandon Robinson, a 6-8 junior. Killingsworth is scoring 14.5 ppg and grabs 6 rebounds per game, while Robinson scores 13.8 ppg and snares 7.5 rebounds. Neither does much 3-point shooting. Killingsworth, who works close to the basket, is making 65% of his shots from the field, and Robinson is knocking down 55% of his shots.
Senior center Kyle Davis, 6-10, 235 (right), continues to be the premier shot blocker in the SEC. He is averaging 2.5 blocks per game (actually less than his 3.6 per game last year), but has increased his scoring and rebounding averages (9.5 and 7.8, respectively). Davis and Killingsworth both make less than 60% of their free throws.
6-9 backup center Dwayne Curtis, a freshman, did not play in the first nine games of the season because of academic eligibility. In the last two games he has averaged seven minutes per game and is scoring 3.5 ppg. 6-6 junior forward Quinnel Brown plays 18 minutes per game and is scoring 5.9 ppg. 6-8 senior Rodney Tucker also sees limited action at forward.
Killingsworth is the biggest scoring threat (he scored 18 against Vanderbilt last year in the Commodores' 62-59 loss at Auburn), while Robinson and Davis are the most athletic players. Speed and quickness at the guard positions are less than some other SEC teams possess. Team defense has been quite good so far, except for the UNLV and Georgia State games, which came back-to-back just before Christmas break. Auburn has considerable height (though less than Vanderbilt), and plenty of experience.
Even though Auburn is the best defensive team Vanderbilt will have played so far, the Commodores are predicted here to open conference play successfully. Auburn is likely to prove to be a stubborn opponent, but Vanderbilt should win by 7-12 points.