Auburn Hoops And A-Day

Columnist Phillip Marshall presents his opinions about Auburn football and basketball, including a season by season analysis of Cliff Ellis' tenure at AU.

The debate over whether Cliff Ellis will be back next season as Auburn's basketball coach is over, but there are still questions in the minds of many about the real strength of his program. Those on each side of the issue can find statistical bits and pieces to support their arguments.

On the plus side, Auburn has been to three NCAA Tournaments in the past five years. On the negative side, Ellis has had two winning SEC records and one break-even SEC record in nine seasons. He's had losing SEC records six times, though three of those were near misses at 7-9. The truth can be found in the big picture, not a little snapshot here or there. Here is a look at the big picture, from the beginning:

1994-95: Ellis took over a program in shambles. Even less was expected of his first team than was expected of this season's team. Auburn went 16-13 overall, 7-9 in the SEC and went to the second round of the NIT.

1995-96: This would almost certainly have been an NCAA Tournament team, but guard Moochie Norris (still in the NBA today) and forward Chris Davis were ruled ineligible before the season. The Tigers still went 19-13 overall. They were 6-10 in the SEC and went to the NIT quarterfinals.

1996-97: It was not a good year. The Tigers were 16-15 overall, 6-10 in the SEC. They were humiliated by Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, losing 92-50.

1997-98: The climb toward the SEC championship began. The Tigers were 16-14 and 7-9. They lost in the second round of the NIT.

1998-99: In many ways, it was the best season in school history. Auburn won more games than any team in state history, went 29-4 and 14-2, won the SEC Championship and was the No. 1 seed in the South Region for the NCAA Tournament before losing in the Sweet 16.

1999-2000: A potential great season turned into just a good one when Chris Porter was ruled ineligible. The Tigers were 24-10, 9-7 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

2000-2001: It probably would have been another NCAA Tournament season, but Mack McGadney, the leading scorer and rebounder, was lost for the season in December to a knee injury. In the end, the Tigers were 18-14 and 7-9 and lost in the second round of the NIT.

2001-2002: McGadney did not recover as hoped. Point guard Jamison Brewer shocked everyone by bolting for the NBA. It was downhill from there to records of 12-16 and 4-12.

2002-2003: We all know the story of this team. It barely got into the NCAA Tournament at 19-11 and 8-8, then made a stirring run to the Sweet 16.

What does it all mean? To me, it means Ellis has built a solid program. He's had outstanding seasons. He's had seasons that were on the verge of big things that came up just short. He's had two really poor seasons. Is that enough? If it is not, Joel Eaves is the only coach in Auburn history who did enough. He coached in a very different time, when the NCAA Tournament really was not an issue. Sonny Smith went to five straight NCAA Tournaments from 1984-88, but he was in his sixth season before he went to his first one. He left after a disastrous season in which Auburn went just 2-16 in the SEC.

The hard truth is, like it or not, the only SEC team that has had sustained success over many years in recent times is Kentucky. Florida is on a roll now, but who knows how long it will go. Georgia, had it gone to the NCAA Tournament this season, would have gone three straight times for the first time in school history. Auburn has been to more NCAA Tournaments in the past five seasons than than Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi State or Vanderbilt and as many as Ole Miss and Arkansas. Only Kentucky and Florida have been to more.

SPRING ACTION

There is great excitement about Saturday's A-Day game, but it would be wise to keep things in perspective. How this team or any team looks in its spring game really means nothing in terms of what to expect next season.

I saw Pat Sullivan throw five interceptions in the 1971 A-Day game. Seven months later, he won the Heisman Trophy. I suspect most coaches, if they had their druthers, would do away with spring games altogether. It would be more valuable to just have another scrimmage. But it will be fun. If the weather cooperates, it could be the biggest A-Day crowd in school history.

About the time the football game is over, the second of three games between the Alabama and Auburn baseball games will begin. And that's the one that really counts.


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