Barbee, Players Hopeful About Future

For Auburn's first-year head basketball coach and his players, the transition season is done and the Tigers are already turning their attention to next season.

Atlanta, Ga.--Just minutes after the last jump shot, rebound and assist of the 2010-2011 season, Auburn's senior-less basketball team and coaching staff were eager to talk about the future of their program.

Coach Tony Barbee's first season at Auburn ended with a 69-51 loss to Georgia in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.

"I think we are going to have a much better team next year with the experience we gained this year and the guys the coaches are bringing in," said Earnest Ross, the sophomore guard who led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding. "I am excited about it."

Forward Kenny Gabriel had a similar sentiment after wrapping up his second season with the Tigers. "I feel like we can take a lot of stuff and learn from this year because we had a lot of young guys, but now all of us young guys have experience," Gabriel said. "The experience plays a big role in basketball games in late game situations.

"Then with the guys that we have coming in this year, they can contribute," Gabriel said of the signees and transfers scheduled to join the 2011-2012 squad. "We have just got to put them on our back, show them the ropes off the court and on the court, stay together as a family and just get the season going next year."

Freshman guard Chris Denson, who finished the season with 21 points vs. Georgia, five more than his previous high, said he is excited about the future, too. "We've got a lot of rebuilding to do. We're young. We've got a lot of good dudes coming in next year so hopefully we will do way better than this. I know we will because of Coach Barbee. The coaching staff is great and we will have great players next year."

Barbee wasn't shy about saying his first Auburn team was "offensively challenged" and the Tigers played that way throughout the season and that was the case in the league tournament with Auburn finishing with just 51 points vs. Georgia.

For the team's scoring problems to end the returning players must work hard during the offseason on their offensive skills as well as strength and conditioning, Barbee said. The coach also noted that the Tigers will need contributions from redshirting guard Frankie Sullivan and two other guards--redshirting transfers Varez Ward from Texas and Noel Johnson from Clemson.

Barbee said his team "can't look back, we've got to look ahead" as he turns his attention to recruiting and making sure the players already in the program get better.

"These guys have got a lot of work to do individually that I talked about and I am excited about the group we have got coming in," Barbee said. "We have got some immediate experience, obviously, when you talk about Varez Ward and Noel Johnson, two Division I transfers who played at a high level already so now we have got immediate experience there.

"You can add Frankie Sullivan to the recruiting class because this was a lost year for him with the injury," Barbee said of the player who underwent offseason knee surgery. "So you add those three in the backcourt and we go from a very inexperienced backcourt to maybe one of the most experienced in the league."

Frankie Sullivan was the only returning starter for the 2010-2011 team, but he tore an ACL over the summer.

Commenting on his big players, Barbee said, "We have got to improve there. We have got to get stronger. We've got to bulk up, work in the weight room and get better in our individual skills so we can come back next year and take another step in the building of this program."

The Tigers finished the regular season with victories over Ole Miss and LSU to double their league win total before falling to Georgia on Thursday to finish with an 11-20 record. It was far from good, but better than many forecast with Barbee having a variety of issues to overcome in a transition season.

"I told the guys in the locker room how they've got a lot to be proud of this season," Barbee said. "In terms of just the players it is always difficult in terms of wins and losses when you rack up that many losses, but give these guys credit. I think as a staff we never showed that we were quitting on them. I think that went a long way. They stayed together as teammates and didn't point, didn't blame.

"They knew they had a lot of growing to do because of the inexperience, and I talked about the growing pains from day one," Barbee said. "You see how we progressed as a team and gradually got better over the course of the season and that is what we want to try to do every year."

After the season came to end at the Georgia Dome, Barbee talked to his team. "I said a lot of things, but one of the things that I did was I challenged them," he noted. "I challenged them all individually because we are nowhere near good enough individually to take the next step that we need to take so individuals have to commit to physically improving themselves because we are not strong enough.

"We played against some men today, and I had some boys out on the floor physically so we got to make some serious gains in terms of the weight room," the coach added.

Earnest Ross was one of the most improved players in the SEC this season.

"We have got to make some serious strides in terms of our skill level, our ability to finish at the rim, our ability to make shots from the perimeter, but we have to improve in a lot of areas. A lot of that is this team individually committing to that and a lot of that is recruiting. I think the way we are going to upgrade our talent level is in terms of who we have got coming in--transfers sitting out and our recruiting class--so we have got some immediate help, but there are guys in that locker room that are going to be able to help, too, but they got to commit to improving. If not, they will get left behind."

Barbee said despite his team exceeding the expectations of many, he went into every contest with a plan to come out a winner. "Obviously, there weren't many expectations on this season, but I don't look at a schedule and see a game that we can't win," he said. "That's just how I am, but at the same time the main focus for this year was laying the foundation of what this team is going to be like, or this program is going to be like on the floor while I'm coaching it, and that is a mean, tough, nasty team that doesn't quit fighting. I think we embodied that over the course of the season.

"Again we built a lot of big deficits that we don't want to make a habit of, but we never, never folded up the tent. Same thing today...They kept fighting all the way to the end and that is what this season was about, laying that foundation, and now we go from there."

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