Young Auburn facing tough SEC slate
By Bradley Handwerger
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For the first time in Jeff Lebo’s three seasons at Auburn, his basketball team is 1-0 in Southeastern Conference play.
And now, back to reality for his Tigers.
Five of Auburn’s next six opponents can claim elite status in the nation’s toughest conference.
Beginning Wednesday night, Auburn (11-5, 1-0 SEC) will travel to Kentucky, go to LSU, host Tennessee, play at Mississippi State, and then stay home for games against Alabama and defending national champion Florida.
Oh yeah, only one player on the current team, junior Frank Tolbert, can claim to have played at Kentucky before.
“We’ve got a very young team this year, and we’re going to one of the premier places to play in the country,” Lebo said. “We’ve had guys who have played on the road before, but not at Kentucky, which is a different animal. It’s one of the toughest places to play a game at.”
Kentucky (12-3, 1-0) has Auburn’s number. The Wildcats own a dominating 80-17 record against Auburn, including a 21-2 record at home in Rupp Arena, where Wednesday’s game takes place.
It doesn’t help Auburn, either, that the Wildcats are on fire defensively at a time when the Tigers are looking for consistency on the offensive end.
Kentucky gave up 37 first-half points to Ole Miss in its SEC opener, the most it has given up in the opening half since late November.
“They have won eight in a row, and it is always a difficult place to play,” Lebo said. “Defensively, they are holding people to about 37 percent from the field and 29 percent from the 3-point line.”
Auburn shot 50 percent from beyond the arc against Vanderbilt on Saturday and will need that kind of consistency from the outside to have a chance against Kentucky.
Rasheem Barrett broke out of a shooting slump against the Commodores, making six of nine 3-pointers and collecting 22 points, while Josh Dollard hit four of five treys.
But it’s Tolbert the Tigers are going to have to rely on. He’s the only one who has played on the fabled floor at Rupp. Lebo is going to need him to step up his leadership role, something he says Tolbert has done on his own already this year.
“We’ve relied on Frank for just about every game because he is our most experienced player,” Lebo said. “We just have to be calm and have some poise on the road.”
Of playing at Kentucky, where Auburn lost 81-73 in Tolbert’s freshman season, he said he’ll tell the youngsters to block out the crowd, which he knows will be hostile.
“There’s a whole sea of blue,” Tolbert said. “That’s what I see when I look out into the crowd. People are going to come to the game.”
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