The Auburn Tigers have an overall record of 12-11, and 3-7 in conference play. With only nine scholarship players, one of whom (6-5 senior Ronnie LeMelle) went down with season-ending injuries after appearing in just four games, and with only one player taller than 6-6, it was not expected that the Tigers would win many games. However, in non-conference play they defeated Temple (80-78) and Colorado State (79-76) at home, gave Virginia a stiff test on the road before losing 89-87, and won at College of Charleston 76-61. In conference play they have two wins at home (over Tennessee 62-59 and a big upset at the expense of Mississippi State 90-76), and on Saturday surprised South Carolina on the road 74-71. Their SEC losses have been on the road to Mississippi State (90-53), Arkansas (95-59), Mississippi (70-55), and LSU (90-69), and at home to Florida (84-78), Mississippi (79-72), and Alabama (60-55).
The Tigers are coached by 39-year old Jeff Lebo (right), who took over from the veteran Cliff Ellis last spring. Lebo was a starter at the University of North Carolina and knows a thing or two about winning. After two years as an assistant coach at East Tennessee, he was an assistant at Vanderbilt under Eddie Fogler in 1992-93 during the 28-6 season of the Commodores. He followed Fogler to South Carolina and was an assistant there for five years. He then took the head coaching job at Tennessee Tech, where he performed wonders, leaving after a 27-7 year in 2001-02. In a lateral move, he took over for two years at Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he had two winning seasons. His record as a head coach is 177-93, and he is a valid contender for SEC Coach-of-the-Year honors because of how much his team has accomplished with minimal talent.
With virtually no size, Lebo has the Tigers running and gunning, using the fast break and putting up a lot of threes. A look at the SEC team statistics makes one wonder how the Tigers have done as well as they have. They are last in points allowed, rebounding margin, field goal defense, and blocked shots and near the bottom in field goal percentage, assist/turnover ratio, and scoring margin. They are second to Vanderbilt in the number of three-point shots made per game and third in free throw percentage, and rank sixth to eighth in other areas (three point shooting percentage, three point defense, steals, and points scored per game).
Without question, Auburn's best player is 6-1 freshman Toney Douglas(left). He leads them in scoring (18.0 ppg), hits 37.5% of his three-point attempts, and grabs a surprising 5.3 rebounds per game. As Lebo brings in more talent (and he has already signed up a crop of promising newcomers for next season), Douglas may never again have quite as much chance to shine, but he will be a force throughout his Auburn career.
6-3 senior guard Ian Young(right) puts up even more threes per game than Douglas (seven per game) and hits 37.1% of them. He is scoring 14.6 ppg and runs the point, with 4.5 assists per game and a respectable assist/turnover ratio better than 1.5/1.0. He also gets 3.9 rebounds per game.
6-6 senior Quinnel Brown(left) is Auburn's tallest starter. He averages 13.3 ppg and is the leading rebounder (6.2 per game). Like all the other six regulars, he hits the three, although his shooting percentage (29.2%) is down from his 36% of a year ago, probably because he has to work so much near the basket.
6-3 senior Nathan Watson(right) (11.3 ppg) also works at rebounding (5.9 per game). He takes a lot of three-point shots and is hitting 38.1%. It will be remembered that he scored 16 points for the Tigers against Syracuse in an NCAA tournament game, year before last.
6-5 freshman Daniel Hayles (left) has been the other starter. He is scoring 6.8 ppg and snares 3.2 rebounds. However, 6-3 freshman Frank Tolbert (6.6 ppg) moved in to start after scoring 29 points against Mississippi State, but then missed the South Carolina game. Tolbert makes exactly one-third of his threes and Hayles fires in 35.0% of his long-range efforts.
Once past these six, the situation becomes more unsettled. LeMelle would have been seeing a lot of action if he were able to play. 6-1 senior Troy Gaines (0.9 ppg) is a scholarship player but hasn't thrived under Lebo. 6-1 sophomore Brett Howell, a transfer from William and Mary, was given a scholarship for this season and is scoring 1.6 ppg. 6-11 freshman Ryan Daniel, who played in high school at Goodpasture HS in Madison, Tenn., is a project who sees limited action. Two walk-ons who have been playing are 6-4 sophomore Kyle Derozan (2.3 ppg) and 6-6 freshman Moses Edun (0.7 ppg).
Obviously Vanderbilt should beat this team. The Commodores have far more talent, size, and depth, and the players find each other on the offense as shown by the large number of assists that the team averages. They also appear to have a better defense. Yet, Auburn defeated South Carolina at home and Vanderbilt did not. The Commodores will be in trouble if Auburn consistently beats them down the court for easy baskets and fires in a high percentage of threes. However, Vanderbilt is picked here to win by five to ten points, and it could easily be more decisive than that.