Lebo's Tigers Seek Break-Through Win

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn coach Jeff Lebo's basketball practices makes one recall those of his former North Carolina coach, Dean Smith.

Lebo is ultra-organized, positive and intense. He's hands-on, to the point of demonstrating to his players how to jump rope during warmups. One of his assistants is Dave Lebo, his dad, who coached him in high school and is equally passionate about the game.

Jeff Lebo, by organizing Auburn's Centennial Celebration around today's 1 p.m. game against Arkansas, wants all the former Auburn great players to "take ownership" of the energetic new Tigers program he wants to build.

Charles Barkley isn't coming after all ("He gave some reason and sent his regrets," said an Auburn publicist), but former All-Americans John Mengelt and Wesley Person will join from 50 to 100 ex-Tigers in 10,500-seat Beard-Eaves Coliseum today. There's even a Legends Game at 11 a.m.

"I can still shoot it, but I can't run it," Person joked.

Lebo, whose team is taller than last year's "runts" but still much shorter than Arkansas, would like some of the current Tigers to shoot like Person. So far, Auburn (8-6, 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference) hasn't scored more than 57 points in a league game, and that was in last Saturday's 69-57 loss to Florida.

"Sometimes Auburn has lulls," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath, "but that happens to a lot of teams. It happens to us."

At least Arkansas has the SEC's top scorer in Ronnie Brewer (18.2 average) and the No. 16 guy in Jonathon Modica (13.6). Auburn has no one in the Top 20. Rasheem Barrett, a 6-foot-5 freshman sixth man with a bad back, leads Auburn at 11.7. Senior starter Ronny LeMelle is next at 11.3.

The Razorbacks (12-5, 1-3 SEC) are calling this game a must-win. But those who view it as Stan's Last Stand might be surprised to learn than Auburn is ranked 62nd and Arkansas 70th in one RPI ranking (collegerip.com).

If Auburn wins, Tigers freshman guard Quantez Robertson probably won't regard it as an upset.

Dubbed "Iron Man" because he leads the team with an average of 34.6 minutes played, Robertson noted that Auburn was competitive with No. 2 Florida for much of that game.

But Robertson did say, "This conference is a lot faster and more well-rounded than the nonconference teams."

Arkansas has noticed.

The fact that Auburn starts three freshmen shouldn't mislead the Hogs. Mississippi State did the same and beat Arkansas 69-67.

Lebo made much of Arkansas' size and weight advantage, but last year the tiny Tigers smote Arkansas 77-64 here. In fact, Auburn has beaten Arkansas in Beard-Eaves three years in a row and holds a 9-5 series lead at home.

Auburn beat writers were surprised to learn that Heath's record of 51-52 (.495) at Arkansas is just percentage points better than Lebo's 22-23 ledger at Auburn (.489).

The energy of Lebo's staff is typified by associate head coach John Cooper, who, moments after joking with visiting writers about his "unshaved, unkept appearance" with his wife out of town, hollered at Barrett during a Thursday practice drill: "You rebounded, but then walked all the way back! I know your back is hurting, but don't be stupid."

Barrett's back isn't the only Auburn injury. Emanuel Willis, a 6-7 sophomore forward with potential, has nursed a sprained ankle this week.

"We need toughness from Emanuel," Lebo said. "He could give us a physical presence. But they do touch you in basketball."

Freshman starter Korvotney Barber, at 6-7 and 220, doesn't mind the touching. His 4.4 rebounding average is second on the Tigers to 6-7, 225-pound freshman reserve Josh Dillard's 4.7.

"Auburn has a solid front line," Heath said. "They've added size in Barber and (6-8, 240-pound freshman) Joey Cameron."

Lebo said the Tigers might be rusty early in today's game, but he added, "We really needed the week off. We've been practicing our young guys long and hard. We're still teaching all three of our post guys how to use their left hand."

That could help against Hogs lefty center Steven Hill, who has already blocked 55 shots this season.

"Hill is much improved, and Darian Townes is a terrific player," Lebo said. "We may have the advantage in speed at some spots, but we've got to find ways to score the ball. We've found that very difficult in the second halves of games."

Perhaps doing some counter-lobbying early in light of Arkansas' free-throw disparity at Alabama, Lebo said, "We've got to get to the foul line. We only got there five times against Florida. Usually the team that gets to the foul line most has the best chance to win."

Lebo said Auburn has found different ways to lose games, and needs someone to step up at crunch time.

Sound familiar?

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