There are times disappointment can be a good thing.
That gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach as Dewayne Reed missed two free throws as the Auburn men missed out on a trip to New York? That audible sigh as Rutgers stretched their lead over the Auburn women back up over 20 points in the second round of the NCAAs? That burning anger at the injustice of the better team playing the lesser team on the lesser team's home court with that much at stake?
Good things, every one of them. Because what those responses replaced from the previous March was ... nothing. There wasn't any lurching in the gut over the fate of Auburn basketball because there was no fate. There were no guts involved. When it came to March, we can be honest about this: there wasn't such a thing, really, as Auburn basketball. (That's not entirely true about the Auburn women; I'll get to that in a second.)
This year, there was such a thing. It had me on my feet pacing in front of the television, it had me screaming at referees, it had me cursing the descendants of anyone playing for Tennessee that day in Tampa they couldn't miss, it had me curdling something approaching hatred for Vanderbilt's women's team. That in the end, finally, it resulted in disappointment was beside the point. Because of that disappointment, I knew it was a thing. It was Auburn basketball. And I hadn't even realized how much I'd missed it.
Jeff Lebo's middle name entering this season was "But." Jeff "But" Lebo. Why that has a ring to it (it does, don't lie to yourself) isn't too tough to figure out. Ever since his arrival, Lebo had had an unbelievably bad run of luck with injuries and transfers ... But. Cliff Ellis had left him a program on probation and a roster cupboard that went beyond bare .... But. Tremendously nice guy. But. Players played hard for him. But. Baby steps forward had been taken. But. But but but but but.
This year, he got rid of the buts. For once, the injury bug left his team pretty much alone. His players didn't just play hard, they played well enough to win games. The steps forward were bigger than they'd ever been. And he's still a nice guy.
It will take more than one NIT banner and good year in the worst SEC ever for Lebo to prove he's the right coach for Auburn, the best coach for Auburn. Next year's team will have to hold the line drawn this season. But--and this is a good one--Lebo looked the part this season.
How? Consider the following:
1. His best (only, almost) post player was 6-7 and not exactly a heavyweight
2. His team played 4-on-5 at the offensive end for long, long stretches because of the need for the offensively-uninvolved Quantez Robertson to stay on the floor
3. His nominal "power forward" was a 6-5 guard
4. His guards, by and large, could not shoot free throws to save their lives
5. His bench rotation included one player with D-I college basketball experience
Lebo's team went 10-6 in the SEC anyway. Sure, the rest of the league had their problems ... but most of them didn't have problems any worse than the ones above. There's no need to qualify Lebo's abilities as a coach any more. We finally got a good look at them, and I don't think anyone has any real complaints about what we saw.
There were times I felt guilty about taking so much delight in the successes of the Auburn women this season, times I felt like I didn't have the right to write posts about them when I hadn't written one ... well, since the blog began. If you'd asked me at the beginning of this season if they'd made the NCAA Tournament in 2008, I'd have said "Yes, the first one under Nell Fortner, right?" ... but I would not have been able to tell you who they'd lost to, what seed they'd been, even who Auburn's best players were.
So even as I watched every second of the Gametracker feed during the Tennessee game, agonized over the loss at Vandy, clapped my hands to an empty apartment as they pulled away from Arkansas to clinch the SEC, I couldn't do it without that nagging guilt that comes naturally to being a self-aware bandwagon, Johnny-come-lately kind of fan. It's hard to say things like "They're back!" when they'd really kind of come back the season before--and I just hadn't been paying attention.
The only way out of that guilt, I figured, was to keep writing about them, keep cheering, keep recognizing what an incredible season and an incredible team this was. They were too incredible not to do those things: 27-2 in the regular season? An SEC championship, the first in two decades? A legitimate chase for an NCAA No. 1 seed? Auburn fans and yours truly might have been late to the party, but at least we eventually how off-the-hook a party the Auburn women were throwing us, right? That sold-out Tennessee game sure looked like the sort of scene where you could wear little cone hats, hang up some streamers, pass out some cake.
Your hostess? That would be Nell Fortner, who never had the wheel-spinning troubles Lebo's endured. Every single year she's been at the Auburn helm, the foundation has been stronger, her team more talented, this past season more and more inevitable. That won't be the case next year with all the talent graduating, but it won't matter that much. Next time her and her program ask me along for a ride, I'm coming. And I'll be there on time.
Because I grew up in a family with Auburn women's season tickets, the names that made up Joe Ciampi's best teams are going to be rattling around my head ... oh, probably forever. I'll be on my deathbed and I'll still remember Vickie Orr, and C.J. Jones, and Ruthie and Mae Ola Bolton, and even players like Linda Godby and Lynn Stevenson and Chantel Tremetiere. They're there forever.
And now, so are DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Boddie and Trevesha Jackson and Sherell Hobbs.
It's kind of odd to consider that midseason, the losses of Vot Barber, Rasheem Barrett and Quantez Robertson were enough to lower expectations for the 2009-2010 season. Barber is a 6-7 center prone to enduring cold spells from the field. Robertson spent four seasons earning major minutes with his defensive tenacity and ballhandling ... and never developing a consistent shot. Barrett was a powerful penetrator and energetic defender, but he also averaged about three fewer points this year than last and didn't exactly stuff the stat sheet: he finished the year 4th on the team in rebounds, 6th in assists, 6th in steals.
But let this be said about all three: they got the most out of their talent. Yes, they were flawed. But yes, they overcame them. Barber rebounded like a rebounding robot all season. Barrett came on like the proverbial house afire late in the season and became Auburn's most consistent scorer in big games. Robertson overcame that brouhaha surrounding his late arrival to Beard-Eaves in midseason to regain his usual role in the rotation as Auburn pushed for an always-unlikely NCAA berth. Auburn fans could not have asked for anything more of them.
Which is why these three seniors, in a sense, have defined this Auburn basketball season. For the first time in a long, long time, we could not ask for anything more out of our basketball programs. We're happy. We're proud. We're still stinging from the way this season finally ended, but even that is a good kind of sting.
Because they're back.