Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some stories can only end one way

There are times when I really, really wish I lived back home, close enough to go see games like last night's massive NIT quarterfinal--there's an oxymoron that only applies when teams like Auburn and Baylor are involved--between two genuinely desperate teams at Beard-Eaves Coliseum. Part of that longing is because this was just a whale of a basketball game--both teams were sharp, both played like they wanted it as badly as they'd ever wanted any game, and both were within a point of each other in that devastating final minute.

But past that, it's because being there in person gives you a chance to get caught up in the crowd, to start believing things because you feel everyone else believing it too. As Fields of Donahue describes:
This was a team of destiny. Not NCAA destiny, but still, for Auburn, it was some kind of destiny. When you're down seven with a minute and a half left and come back to within one with two free throws in front of DeWayne Reed, that's it. Beard-Eaves was roaring, and I mean the kind of roaring reserved for Saturdays in the fall.
I wish I'd had that kind of faith. Because when Dewayne Reed stepped to the line last night with two free throws to potentially win the game, I felt pretty much the exact opposite way: I hoped he'd hit one of the two and we'd go to overtime. I wasn't expecting him to hit both, at all. And I thought it perfectly possible--maybe even likely--that he'd clank both.

Because, come on, this was the only way Auburn's season can end. When a team has spent an entire season proving that it can do every single other thing required for a basketball team to win games (at least in spurts) except for the simplest, easiest act on the court, that season will end on missed free throws. Always. Just ask Memphis. So no, I wasn't surprised when both of reed's free throws glanced off the rim.

But I really would have liked to have been. This team deserved that kind of faith--they overcame so many deficits, so many setbacks, so many talent deficiencies and so many doubters (yours truly certainly included). I can't even remember an Auburn team I rooted this hard for, that I found so eminently likeable. (That they share so much "scrappiness" DNA with mid-majors like Siena or Western Kentucky is a help, no doubt.) Two free throws should have been nothing.

It's just too bad they had to be free throws.

Other thoughts:

--As expected, the Auburn offense found some success against the Baylor D, even with the Bears playing zone. Not surprisingly for a team that was never all that good from the perimeter, the Tigers' shooting could have been better, but the zone has its downside against Auburn, too: if your offense turns the ball over just 8 times and collects 15 offensive rebounds, that's going to lead to a lot of extra possessions. Given that Auburn shot 39 percent to the Bears' 50 percent, maybe it's surprising that they were even in the game; given that Auburn took 10 more FGA and 4 more free throw attempts, maybe it's surprising they didn't win the game.

--That said, that 50 percent shooting for Baylor was just killer. I said yesterday the game would come down to whether Auburn could force the Bears to shoot a lower-than-normal percentage, because we couldn't expect a huge turnover margin. Sure enough, Auburn might have turned it over just 8 times, but for Baylor the number was still just 12--making the visitors' shooting paramount. They connected just enough to pull it out, thanks to mostly some clever offensive basketball ... but also in part to one or two late closeouts and dumb fouls (in a game this close, how huge were those one-and-one trips to the line for Baylor on fouls at halfcourt or the free-throw line?) that have to be laid at the feet of Auburn's defense.

--Let's do hear it one more time for this Auburn team's resilience, huh? Down 10 first half, down eight second half, down seven with under 2 to play ... and they come back every single time. Hell of a performance.

--Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes criticized Barrett for not going to the rim on the final shot, but, uh ... that's a pretty good look to win the game, and as the only senior on the court who could have the ball in his hands at that point, it's his shot. Auburn could have done a lot worse there.

--I absolutely love his defense and hustle, but man, playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end with Quantez Robertson--who took just two shots all game--can get tough at times, especially against the zone.

--I know it doesn't fit this team's usual style, and I have even less room to second-guess hoops coaching than I do football coaching, but I have to ask: is it really so impossible to play Vot Barber and Brandon Knox at the same time? Knox got all of six minutes, during which he time he was able to post up once. But on that post-up, he confidently spun and kissed in a bank shot as pretty as you'll see. After a steady game-long diet of threes and dribble-drives, wouldn't it be a nice change-of-pace to let Knox do that more often?

--I'll say more about it and the women's season in a wrap-up post tomorrow, but I'll also take this opportunity to say: fantastic season, fellas. War Eagle.


jd said...

Hey, 24-12. I never thought I'd see the day where Jeff Lebo took Auburn to a record that good.

My hat's off to you, and if I were at the game last night, I would have given you a standing O.

WarBone said...

I'll be honest, I didn't fully expect those free throws to go down. I just didn't expect that Reed would miss both, because that would have meant a really cruel end to this season, which it did.

The game had to be my favorite in the three years I've been here. And jd, we did give Lebo and the team a standing O. They deserved it.

SEC Homer said...

Yeah 24-12 is good, but it should have been so much better. AU was inconsistent like they have always been under Lebo until the last month and a half of the season. Now AU loses Barber and Barrett. They will probably struggle next year replacing those two key guys, who also were two of the biggest guys on the team. Unless Knox, Hargrove, and Sullivan really step it up, AU will not match this years "success". I guess a potential wild card is if there is a freshman or soph that can step in or a Chris Porter like JUCO player that is on the way. But that is unlikely. I hope Lebo can build on his one good season and turn AU into a perennial SEC contender(like landing a big time recruit or two). But IMO if AU struggles again next year, they need to look at hiring a mid major coach.

tiger7_88 said...

I agree and disagree, SEC Homer. We'll definitely miss the experience and senior leadership we lose. But, overall, we'll be a bigger lineup next year.

We lose a 6-7 Barber, a 6-5 Barrett, and a 6-3 Robertson and replace with a 6-10 Knox, a 6-7 Brandon McGee (transfer from Indiana), and either a 6-1 Frankie Sullivan or a 6-5 Tony Neysmith (transfer from Oklahoma). And that's not even counting (at forward) incoming JUCO 6-7 Ken Gabriel, incoming freshman 6-9 Robert Chubb, and (at guard) incoming freshman 6-4 Earnest Ross and 6-4 Andre Malone.

Bigger lineup next year. In some cases MUCH bigger.

Just a whoooooooooole lot younger.

SEC Homer said...

Sounds like they have some pretty good guys coming in. I hope they can gel quickly. With success comes higher expectations.