So it goes. As I said Saturday: we should not be disappointed this team did not make the NCAA Tournament. We should be thrilled they ever put themselves in the conversation. Easier said than done, of course, but that's the case.
The off-night. As Auburn steamrolled towards the SEC tournament, the nagging worry I had was that they were due for one bad game. New-and-improved Auburn had been a very good team, but you don't turn into a dominant, flatten-all-comers kind of team overnight. They'd played nine straight good-to-excellent games to end the season. Surely, surely, eventually they were going to revert, if only partially, to the mediocre bunch that lost to Vandy, Ole Miss, etc. I thought entering Saturday that that game had been Florida--the shooting was poor, the guards way more turnover-prone than usual, and even if the defensive stats were outstanding, some of that was the Gators simply missing a bunch of makeable shots. Auburn had survived their off-night, I thought, and would be back to the team that destroyed LSU and Miss. St. against the Vols.
The offense came around, at least in part. But I was wrong about the defense--they hadn't had their off-night yet. The three key components to defense are keeping shooting percentage down, forcing turnovers, and snagging defensive rebounds. Two out of three would have gotten the job done, most likely. Too bad Auburn only got one out of three:
Some of this is just bad luck--Tennessee paid for this kind of accuracy by regressing to the mean in a huge way against Miss. St., where they infuriatingly went 8-for-27 from 3, much more typical for the Vols on the season--and some of it is that Auburn struggles to grab defensive rebounds against teams that hit the offensive glass, as Tennessee does. But much of it is that Auburn left Tennessee's shooters open, did not cut off penetration, and continued to foul more often than they should.
The defense, in short finally had its off-night. It happens. They were due. I just wish they could have waited two more games.
Offense. As the 85 points suggested, Auburn was actually pretty good on the offensive end of the floor. They finished with 1.06 points a possession, nowhere near their 1.2 outburst in these teams' first meeting but above their average from the SEC slate and above Tennessee's average PPP allowed. Barber was an absolute warrior again, battling through an elbow injury to go 11-of-14 for 24 points. As a team, Auburn collected 17 assists to 11 only turnovers. Key weapons like Waller and Barrett were doing their thing for the most part. The failure lay on the other end.
But still: Auburn was awful in transition, squandering opportunity after opportunity generated by their 12--12!--steals. A game after having maybe his best game of the year, Frankie Sullivan forced far too much and scored just 9 points on 12 shots. Hargrove disappeared. As a team, Auburn shot just 31 percent on a rain of threes. It wasn't bad, but Auburn had matched Tennessee shot-for-shot earlier this season. They just couldn't quite manage it the second time around.
Lebo. Funny, the question has swung so far away from whether he's bought himself another season that it's worth asking if he's bought himself two. After wringing as much as he did from what didn't look like a particularly impressive team on paper ... maybe? It suddenly seems harsh to grade him on next year's squad, which will lose the services of the current team's only productive post player in Barber, not to mention Barrett and Robertson.
Strange as it sounds, it might depend on this year's NIT. Go to Madison Square Garden, prove that this team could have made noise in the NCAAs if they'd just had a little more time (or if Barber had been healthy to start the year), and Lebo can probably survive just about anything next year. Follow-up a flameout against a dangerous UT-Martin side Wednesday night with a return to the SEC West cellar next year, and ...
Well, we'd have to cross that bridge when we got there. But after this year, a weird thing happened: I don't think Auburn's going o have to cross that bridge. I don't think they'll lose to Martin. I don't expect them to return to mediocrity next year. Lebo's somehow managed to instill some sense of confidence in this program over the last few weeks: as long as he can maintain that, he'll stay.
Done Ruthless. Cool beans: the UT-Martin Skyhawks will bring with them to the Plains star guard Lester "Done Ruthless" Hudson, owner of the first quadruple double in NCAA D-I history and a guy nearly everyone who follows mid-major basketball expects to be in the NBA some day. It'll be sweet for the hoops geeks in the crowd to get a look at him; it'll be less sweet for the Auburn players tasked with stopping him. He doesn't have enough help that Auburn will be in serious trouble if they don't sleepwalk through things, but things could have been easier for an NIT No. 1 seed.
Lebo, part II. He almost has a point here:
Auburn's non-conference schedule was a major factor against it getting an at-large bid, but Lebo said a lot of that was out of the team's control. George Washington, Missouri State and Virginia are three teams that looked like formidable challenges when the Tigers scheduled them. "People think you just go out and schedule people," Lebo said. "You’ve just got to schedule good teams. Well, it’s hard to get some teams to play you home and home. You don’t just call up, ‘All right, North Carolina, let’s play home and home.’ That’s hard to do. Easy to play, hard to do."
All that said: none of that changes the fact that Tuskegee, Bethune-Cookman, both Alabama-based SWAC teams, perennially hapless Tulane, etc. were all on the schedule. And bad luck or not, the Committee can't take scheduling intent into account. Auburn could have made the tournament with the games they had scheduled. They just didn't win enough of them.
Lastly, a thank you. It's been a long, long time since I cared this much about Auburn hoops. Jay Coulter wrote something simple after the first Tennessee game that's stuck with me:
College basketball is a heck of a lot of fun - especially when you win.This is true--but it's not entirely about winning. It helps, and helps tremendously, if the team doing the winning is likable, if you can root for them for reasons other than the name of the school on the jersey, if the coach is someone you're glad to have representing Auburn instead of someone who you're convinced couldn't care less about your alma mater.
In 2003, I didn't feel like that was the case for Auburn, which is why I didn't even see them beat Wake Forest to advance to the Sweet 16 that year. Instead I bought tickets to the first- and second-round NCAA games in Birmingham and watched a five-foot-nothing gym rat named Darnell Archey shoot Butler past Louisville and their future NBA draftee Reece Gaines to make the Sweet 16. The news that Auburn had upset Wake came in during the second half of the Butler game, and I stood up and yelled War Eagle and I think even sang the fight song with a guy a couple rows behind me. But every time Archey came off of one of those screens and buried another dagger to shut the avalanche of loud and arrogant Louisville fans that had invaded the BJCC, theg ame in front of me became more important. There was no question that if you'd asked me right then if I'd trade that Auburn victory for that Butler victory, I'd have taken you up on it in a heartbeat.
I'm still rooting as hard as ever for the Butlers of the world--I hope the Bulldogs rip LSU to shreds this Thursday. But if this Auburn team, with their quick hands and commitment to defense, with Vot Barber playing like a guy a foot taller, with Quantez Robertson ratcheting up his defense even as his minutes shrank and shrank, with their coach pushing and cajoling a team I never thought in a million years would sniff the NCAA Tournament coming within two wins of it ... well, it's not perfect. But if they'd made it, I would have thought twice about swapping one of their victories for one of Butler's. That much I can say.
Thanks, Auburn. I didn't realize how much I wanted to care again.