As his Auburn basketball team prepares for its SEC opener to be played on Saturday at Vanderbilt, Auburn coach Tony Barbee didn't use the exact words as actors Strother Martin and Paul Newman did in the movie, but the sentiment was the same.
"This is one of the weakest communicating teams I have been around," Barbee said of his Tigers, who posted a 10-4 mark in their pre-conference schedule. "To be a great defensive team, you have to be a great communicating team."
Barbee said from what he has seen his Tigers are nowhere close to being even a good team on defense like they were last season. That has shown up with a 1-4 record in games away from Auburn Arena.
"We are not guarding on the road," the coach said. "We are not guarding like we are guarding at home. We are letting too many things affect our ability to guard every possession. We are not good enough offensively to do that, especially on the road against the teams we have played."
Barbee said the Tigers need the defense to be a constant to keep opponents close on the scoreboard when the Tigers go into a shooting slump like they did on Wednesday night in an 85-56 loss at Florida State.
Using an example from last season's team, he noted that the Tigers trailed a nationally ranked Vandy squad by two with eight minutes left in the game. He noted that at that point of the game the Tigers went 10 straight possessions in which they scored just one time, but didn't lose ground to the Commodores because the defense allowed Vandy to score just once on its 10 possessions during that stretch.
Against Florida State the Tigers had a stretch in the first half during which they went 10 consecutive possessions without scoring. When that happened the Tigers fell into a hole so deep they couldn't get out of it when the Seminoles scored every on every possession during that stretch.
Asked to explain Auburn's struggles defensively on the road compared to at home where the Tigers are 9-0, Barbee said, "We are not guarding with the sense of urgency and toughness we did last year and that is on me. I have got to get this group guarding at the same level."
Barbee noted that playing strong defense will be a challenge vs. a veteran Vanderbilt team that has the same record as Auburn, but has done it vs. a much tougher schedule.
"Coming in to the year I said they were going to be the best team in the league," Barbee said of the Commodores. "Now that they are getting all of the pieces back and starting to get healthy, they are starting to look like it--a scary team.
"I said they were probably the most talented team, on top of being the most veteran, which is unusual for college basketball to have three or four NBA draft picks decide to come back for their senior years," Barbee added. "It makes it a scary proposition starting the league at Vanderbilt against probably the best team Kevin (Coach Kevin Stallings) has had, and I have seen his teams play for a long time."
The Tigers also need to step up their performance level on offense. One of the keys to making that happen is senior forward Kenny Gabriel, who has taken over the team scoring lead from slumping guard Frankie Sullivan.
Gabriel is averaging 12.6 points and a team-leading 8.1 rebounds. In the last four games the senior forward has made 31-40 field goals and is 9-12 on threes.
Gabriel said that Barbee has been pushing him to shoot more. The coach agreed and said the senior needs to become more aggressive.
Kenny Gabriel is shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 40 percent on his threes this season.
Commenting on Gabriel, Barbee said, "Why wouldn't you want to shoot more? That is one of the things we addressed--not him being a selfish pig because that is not his game, either. We want him to get his shots in the flow, but at the same time he has got to understand that he has got to be a heavy impact guy for us offensively."
Tipoff for Saturday's game is 12:47 p.m. CST at Memorial Gym in Nashville with TV coverage on the SEC Network.
Vandy features a starting lineup with four seniors plus a key senior off the bench, 6-11, 255 Festus Ezelli, who is back in action after missing 10 games. He is averaging 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.
John Jenkins, a 6-4 junior guard, is the leading scoring for Vanderbilt and in the SEC at 20.5 points per game. Jeffrey Taylor, a 6-7, 225 senior forward from Sweden, is next with 17.5 points per contest. He is also averaging 5.6 rebounds.
Lance Goulbourne, a 6-8, 230 senior forward, is the top rebounder with 7.6 per game and is averaging 10.5 points. Senor point guard Brad Tinsley is dishing out 3.9 assists per contest to go with 10.3 points and 3.0 rebounds.
The Commodores are on a four-game winning streak while the Tigers are 2-2 in their previous four games.
Chris Denson launches a shot for the Tigers.
"Of course we are down, but we can't hang our heads too low because we have got a big game vs. Vandy," said Denson, who led the Tigers in scoring at Florida State with 15 points. We had a hard day of practice (Thursday) so we are looking forward to the game on Saturday."
Denson agreed with Barbee that Auburn's defense must improve to have a chance to defeat the Commodores plus he added, "We have to make shots. We had a lot of good shots against Florida State and they just didn't fall. In the first half we went 15 percent from the field."