The Auburn Tigers (11-19, 4-12) will be the first SEC West team to take the court as the Southeastern Conference begins today in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The inaugural game will be an Auburn vs. Georgia (20-10, 9-7) matchup with a noon tipoff. The Tigers are 23-30 (.434) in the SEC Tournament since its renewal in 1979.
These teams have faced each other once this season in a meeting that ended with Georgia winning 81-72 in overtime on Feb. 5 in Athens. In 105 years of Tiger basketball, Georgia is Auburn's most common opponent as they have played one another 175 times.
The series is only separated by one game as Georgia has an 88-87 lead. All 175 games in the series have been decided by just an average of one point with Georgia scoring 59.19 points per game (10,358) to Auburn's 58.13 points per game (10,172).
This will be the third meeting (all in Atlanta's Georgia Dome) between Auburn and Georgia in the SEC Tournament in the last eight years after not playing in the postseason tournament in the previous 16 years, dating back to a 65-60 Georgia win in 1988 in Baton Rouge, La.
Auburn has a 3-4 record against Georgia in SEC Tournament games while losing three straight games in the ﬁrst round to the Bulldogs in tournament play.
The Tigers concluded their regular season with back-to-back wins that saw Auburn battle back from double-digit deficits. Auburn defeated Ole Miss 76-73 on March 2 at home and LSU 60-51 in Baton Rouge.
Auburn head coach Tony Barbee believes his team's ability to come from behind and win shows how dedicated the players are.
"It just speaks to the character of these kids, the mental toughness, the mental
makeup that no matter how big the deﬁcit, these guys believe that they are in any
ballgame," Barbee said. "It is unfortunate. It's not something that we plan on doing in digging
ourselves big holes, but for some reason, they've come out very slow offensively in
the ﬁrst half. Then, we pick it up it seems in the second half when we get down. So,
I tried to play a little bit of a mind game with them to get to LSU to act like the ﬁrst
half was the second half, but obviously that didn't work because we got down 15 in that game. These guys believe, and they have all year long even though our record doesn't indicate it. This has been a fun year for me, and it has been a fun year for these guys because of how they have competed all year long."
When the Tigers learned they would face Georgia in the first round of the tournament, Barbee recalled the challenge of taking on players with impressive size like Trey Thompkins (6-foot-10, 245 pounds), Jeremy Price (6-foot-8, 270 pounds) and Chris Barnes (6-foot-8, 240 pounds).
"Those guys are a difﬁcult matchup for us," Barbee said. "If you pay too much attention to them, they have guards who are more than capable of burning you with the guys they have on the perimeter with (Gerald) Robinson and (Dustin) Ware and (Travis) Leslie. It is a difﬁcult matchup even though we played well in Athens. It seems like that was four months ago. It's been so long since we've played them (Feb. 5). They are probably a much different team than we played them at that time, and I know we are a much different team than when we played them at that point."
Auburn's junior forward Kenny Gabriel is coming off performances that earned him SEC Player of the Week honors. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in the two final regular season games. Gabriel shot 50 percent from the ﬁeld, 42.9 percent from 3-point range and 81.3 percent (13-of-16) from the free throw line.
Gabriel notched his ﬁrst career double-double against an SEC team and third overall with game-highs of 16 points and 11 rebounds at LSU on March 5. He scored 10 straight points for Auburn to keep the Tigers within striking distance in the ﬁrst half, trimming a 20-9 deﬁcit to
27-21. Gabriel also scored a career-high 24 points on 3-of-5 three-pointers and had seven rebounds as Auburn erased a 20-point deﬁcit to defeat Ole Miss. It was the second largest comeback in school history.
The Bulldogs have won six of their last 10 games despite losing at Alabama 65- 57 on Saturday. Thompkins led Georgia with 15 points and 10 rebounds and Travis Leslie added 15 points.
In the overtime win over Auburn, Price had 22 points and 14 rebounds while Leslie had 20 points and eight rebounds. Thompkins chipped in 16 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Auburn's Earnest Ross had a career-high 30 points on 5-of-7 three-pointers in the game.
The Tigers have struggled on the road this year, losing seven of nine away games. However, the last win of the season occurred in the opponent's area. Barbee is confident the Tigers have the right mindset going into today's game in Atlanta.
"We talk about it whether you are at home, whether you are on the road and whether you are playing a pickup game in the park, it doesn't matter because the court is the same length, the baskets are the same height, and there is usually about the same amount of air in the basketball," Barbee said. "So, just do what you do, and if it is good enough, then you will have an opportunity to win."
The SEC Network will broadcast the tournament.