Auburn, Ala.--After a disappointing conference opener on Saturday, Coach Jeff Lebo’s Auburn Tigers face perhaps their toughest week of basketball this season with a road trip to 10th-ranked Tennessee on Thursday followed by a quick-turnaround for a home game on Saturday vs. No. 2-ranked Kentucky.
“Our focus right now is on Tennessee,” says Lebo, whose Tigers will take on the Vols at 6 p.m. CST on Thursday in Knoxville. “With the new television deal, the whole league moved a lot of games to Thursday where you have one day prep and have an afternoon game on Saturday, which is obviously very difficult--especially if the other team has had two days. That is just one thing that we had to give up a little bit as coaches to get more television exposure for our league.”
Every men’s conference basketball game is being televised this season. The Auburn vs. Tennessee game will be carried by ESPN2 and ESPN360.
The Vols, who are 12-2 overall, come into the game with major momentum after defeating unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Kansas on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena, which has been a tough place for Auburn to win games. The Tigers are just 2-12 there in games vs. the Vols.
“It was incredibly impressive watching their chemistry,” Lebo said about Tennessee’s win over Kansas that was accomplished without starter Tyler Smith, who has been dismissed from the team. The Vols also played without three other players who are suspended indefinitely. That group includes Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins.
Tyler Smith is shown in action for the Vols. Smith, Williams, Tatum and Goins averaged a combined 32.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game before being sidelined.
“They played with confidence,” Lebo said of the Vols in their win over the Jayhawks. “How they started early was key. They shot the ball very well. Guys came off the bench that hadn’t played very much and just competed awfully hard.
“That environment, too, I think took its toll a little bit on Kansas,” Lebo added. “I thought Kansas looked a little flustered at times out there and they are used to playing in hostile environments on the road every time they go out and play. It was really impressive.
“They had some guys step up,” Lebo pointed out. “The shooter, Renaldo Woolridge, made threes coming off the bench. The guy had not really played a whole heck of a lot of minutes. Even though they have lost a lot of guys, they still have the four starters really that are pretty good with three of those guys being seniors. That just puts them on the court a little bit more.”
Those senior starters include 6-9 center Wayne Chism (11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds per game), 6-3 guard Bobby Maze (8.5 points, 3.3 assists) and 6-7 guard J.P. Prince (6.4 points, 3.1 assists).
Woolridge, a 6-8 sophomore who is the son of former Notre Dame star Orlando Wooldridge, is averaging 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds and the other starter, 6-7 sophomore guard Scotty Hopson, is scoring a team-high 13.8 points per game.
Auburn comes into the game following a disappointing 80-71 home loss to South Carolina. The Tigers split two games vs. Coach Bruce Pearl’s Vols last season winning at home and losing in the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament in Tampa 94-85 in March.
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