Sunday, January 11, 2009
Lebo's Labours Lost or, Lebo's Last Days or, Lebo's Lament
Say this for Jeff Lebo: I've never gotten the impression that what he's gotten out of his Auburn teams wasn't at least in the ballpark of "the most." Maybe not the absolute most, sure. But given that since Day 1 his squads have always been one of the SEC's shortest teams, or thinnest teams, or youngest teams, or some dreadful combination of shortest, thinnest, and youngest, it's hard to say they should have ever been much better than they were.
The song, as ever, remained the same last night in the Tigers' SEC opener, on the road at an underrated South Carolina team that hasn't gotten a ton of press but nonetheless entered with an 11-2 record and the leagues' fourth-best Pomeroy rating, ahead of the likes of Vandy and new conference darling Arkansas. Nonetheless Auburn played some inspired D in the opening minutes, held the 'Cocks to under 40 percent shooting (and just 2-of-9 on threes) and got just enough from offense from the Vot Barber-Dewayne Reed tag team to lead 26-23 with 2 minutes and change remaining in the first half.
But when you're a basketball team whose entire offensive repertoire consists of 1) Barber 2) Reed and 3) other assorted three-point jacks (mostly from Waller), you're in trouble when option 3 stops falling. And you're really in trouble when option 3 stops falling and you're turning the ball over on 32.2 percent of your possessions. (Eight turnovers, Lucas Hargrove? Really?) And so, from the 2:24 mark of the first half to the 11:08 mark of the second--a span of nearly 11:30--Auburn scored six points. And went from leading by three to trailing by 19. And lost by 12.
Given that South Carolina is the better team and was playing at home and that Auburn's failure wasn't one of defensive/rebounding effort but of poor shooting--Tigers who were neither Reed nor Quantez Robertson shot 10-of-36, or an appalling 27.7 percent--and poor ballhandling decisions, I think it's fair to say that, once again, Auburn mostly played about as well as it could and just had an off-night shooting the ball.
But here's the thing: this is Lebo's fifth season, and Auburn's talent level and, in particular, offensive capabilities--that 6-of-14 mark from the stripe against the 'Cocks is barely even noteworthy when you're talking about a team that ranks 334th out of 344 teams in free-throw percentage--have barely budged since he took over the disaster area Ellis's departure left behind. The very first thing Lebo had to do was stop the roster bleeding, and he's never done it. There's simply no way to build a successful program on a foundation of attrition. To borrow a phrase from Time, that just before this game backup "center" JUCO transfer Johnnie Lett became a (possibly temporary, possibly permanent) academic casualty was neither shocking nor predictable, exactly, but shockingly predictable.
So, yeah, I think we should note that Auburn's nonconference performance was--here we go again--about as good as could have been expected. They lost four games by a combined 18 points, only one of them "embarrassing," and competed gamely with the two strongest opponents (Xavier and Dayton) they faced. They defeated a Virginia team that could well be considered the Auburn of the ACC, and on the road at that. They generally dispatched their lesser opponents the way they should have, and entered SEC play with a Pomeroy rating in the mid-70s, the seventh-best mark in the league.
But if we should note all that, we have to note that it's not the nonconference resume of a team that can think seriously about an NCAA Tournament berth. The Committee doesn't look at Pomeroy ratings that take into account how close those losses to Dayton and Xavier, they look at RPI ratings that say nothing more than that a team lost--and those RPI ratings say Auburn is currently 119th and barely even in the range for NIT consideration.
If Pomeroy's ratings are closer to the truth--they predict a final 19-12 Auburn record and an 8-8 SEC mark--Lebo will finally nab that elusive postseason berth. But that's a big if, and even if the Tigers do go to the NIT or the NIT's Evil Twin, is that enough? Is yet another anonymous, JUCO-driven, attrition-poisoned season what we want from Auburn's men's basketball program, even if it's a slightly better anonymous, JUCO-driven, attrition-poisoned season than the one that came before it?
If Lebo can win 10 games in the SEC and make some noise at the conference tournament, it'll be worth debating. But it's almost a moot point. That's the absolute most one could expect from this collection of players, who play hard and are solid defensively and generally deserve our respect. But after five years of the Jeff Lebo experience, it's safe to say we won't see the aboslute most out of them. They'll just be in the ballpark. And as the lessons of Nell Fortner teach us on a weekly basis now, I don't think Auburn has to settle for just being in the ballpark.