Monday, January 20, 2003 Updated: January 21, 11:54 AM ET
Tigers out to keep proving it deserves SEC respect
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
So, just to be sure. This is the same Auburn team that lost by 18 to Western Michigan -- at home, no less -- on Dec. 17. Right?
The same Auburn team that is now the talk of the SEC? An Auburn team that is 15-2 overall, 4-0 in conference, and in first place in the West Division? The West Division? You know, the division with Alabama and Mississippi State -- a.k.a. the defending SEC regular-season and tournament champions. The two teams who looked like Final Four teams in December, right?
The underrated Marquis Daniels (25 points) led Auburn.
What's up with that?
Time to find out just how good these Tigers are.
Auburn travels to Kentucky (Wednesday) and Georgia (Saturday), and while losing either or both won't end talk of the Tigers reaching the NCAA Tournament, how the Tigers perform in two of the toughest places to play in the SEC might be a better indicator as to how good the Tigers really are than any of the 15 victories they've already piled up.
The majority of teams in the country, let alone in the SEC, would lose both games that face Auburn this week. But if the Tigers, who are No. 25 in the latest power ratings but not yet a lock for the NCAA, can just play .500 ball the rest of the season -- and the road won't get easier with stops still to come at Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU -- it would finish with 21 wins. History says SEC teams with 21 wins make the Dance.
Still, the SEC has a way of putting teams in their place. And Auburn will find out where it stacks up with the rest of the conference starting with the next six days.
"It's a like a horse race, and we've made it around the first turn. But we've got a long way to the finish," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "Mississippi State was one of the biggest surprises in the country earlier and they are winless in the SEC.
"We are undefeated. But this week will say a lot about us. This week is brutal. But we're a team that should be at the bottom of the top 25. This team deserves it."
So, how did Auburn get to this point?
Well, the Tigers did have a soft early schedule, which may not have earned many power rating points, but did helped build confidence. Auburn won three games in Puerto Rico against Mayaguez, Denver and Troy State prior to Christmas. The Tigers then had an impressive win over Southern Miss (92-46) and beat North Texas before opening the SEC with a win over Vanderbilt.
Beating Vanderbilt didn't send shock waves through the SEC, but going on the road and winning -- even if it was against Arkansas and South Carolina -- made a statement; if not to the heavyweights in the SEC, at least to Auburn itself. Remember, the Tigers were 0-9 on the road last season, and had lost 13 consecutive road games heading into the season.
The warning to the rest of the SEC, however, came Saturday when Auburn handled Alabama at home. It was suddenly clear the Tigers weren't going to be ignored, or slowly sink to the spot reserved for them in the preseason ... near the bottom of the division.
"I knew this was possible,'' Ellis said. "We've done it so many times at South Alabama and at Clemson. (Ellis' prior coaching posts) I know when you're not Duke or Kentucky. You've got to let your young players grow."
That's what Ellis claims he was doing last season when he leaned heavily on newcomers, and paid for it with a 12-16 record, 4-12 in the SEC and no postseason for the first time in five seasons.
But the Tigers' slide was understandable.
Sophomore point guard Jamison Brewer declared for the NBA draft on the last day of the early-entry deadline in 2001. Auburn never had a chance to recruit another player to take his place, and to make matters worse, Mack McGadney was injured and never close to 100 percent. McGadney was a double-digit scorer two seasons ago, but averaged under five points last season. Auburn picked up point guard Lewis Monroe late, but he was injured during the preseason and couldn't play until into the SEC season. Then guard Adam Harrington declared early for the NBA, even though he averaged only 10 points a game last season.
This season didn't start out so well, either, when guard Dwayne Mitchell quit the team after freshman guard Steve Leven came off the bench to score 15 points in 23 minutes of the Tigers' first exhibition game. Then Leven mysteriously quit before the opener against Wofford. The Tigers also had to play the first 13 games without forward Brandon Robinson, as the NCAA investigated funds allegedly funnelled to him prior to Auburn through his summer program. (It was a similar investigation to what was going on with Alabama's Kennedy Winston.)
Robinson got eligible for the SEC opener against Vanderbilt and is now averaging 9.2 points and 4.8 boards. He had 13 points and grabbed seven boards to help beat Alabama last Saturday. Adding Robinson might have been the missing piece.
"He gives us depth and an athlete that we didn't have early in the season," Ellis said. "We didn't have Robinson against Western Michigan or Western Kentucky. We haven't lost with him. Our team is much stronger with him in the mix. He was an all-SEC freshman last season (averaging 8.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game)."
The Tigers already had a star in Marquis Daniels, but he was forced played nearly every position. He had to play in McGadney's place at power forward when he was hurt. He subbed for Brewer at the point when he split. Daniels is finally settling into his natural small forward spot, where he's flourishing and averaging 19 points a game.
Marco Killingsworth has been a beast inside with 15 points and nearly seven points a game, while Derrick Bird has been a capable guard with 10 points and a 43.8-percent clip on 3s. Auburn also has the best shotblocker in the SEC in Kyle Davis (71 for an average of 4.2 a game). Chemistry has long since stopped being an issue, especially with the victories piling up.
"We're getting great senior leadership from Daniels and Bird," Ellis said. "Marquis is a pro. He is making a statement for staying for four years. Remember, we lost two players early to the NBA in Jamison and Adam. We're not Duke. We're Auburn. We can't just bounce back when we lose players like that."
The sophomore class of Robinson, Monroe, Killingsworth and Nathan Watson (shooting 48.9 percent on 3s) is as good, if not better, than Ellis' favorite class led by former Tiger point Doc Robinson. That team, anchored by Chris Porter, got to be a No. 1 seed in 1999.
But will the Auburn faithful be as patient as Ellis?
"I don't control that," Ellis said. "But I never doubted them. I saw in that freshmen class last season that they had a chance. But before the SEC, you could say we were already behind six teams. Everyone was saying Alabama, Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky were all Sweet 16 teams. I was saying, 'where is there a place for us?' That's why it's amazing what we're doing."
But, again, this is Auburn we're talking about, right?
If so, the question remains: Can they keep it going?
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.