A promising season has come to that. Oh, Auburn players will tell you that they are trying to build momentum for the SEC Tournament. It's possible, of course, that the Tigers could go on a four-day run in Atlanta, but that's not something to count on.
What happened to a team that was picked to finish second in the West? Lewis Monroe's injury in the preseason certainly didn't help. Senior center Kyle Davis never became an offensive force and, for some reason, Brandon Robinson's offensive game went south.
Coach Cliff Ellis says his team is playing its best basketball of the season, and he's right. But what his team has not learned to do is win close games. Six games against SEC opposition have been decided by six points or less. Five have been lost. Turn that around and, instead of a disappointment, you have an NCAA Tournament team. Such is the slim margin for error in college basketball's fast lane.
No loss hurt worse than last Tuesday's 72-71 loss to Alabama. The Tigers played with great energy and heart. They could have and should have won, but they didn't.
All that brings the inevitable question. Will Ellis be back next season? The outcome of the hearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions will be a factor in that decision, one would think. So will the good and the bad of the last 10 seasons. Ellis won Auburn's first SEC championship in 40 years and has been to three NCAA Tournament in the past five years, but he's had just two winning SEC records out of 10. His overall record is pretty impressive, but the nonconference schedule that record has been built against is anything but impressive. The burning question now is who will make the decision. Athletic director David Housel is busy fighting for his own job, a fight he is almost certainly going to lose in the weeks or months ahead. Ellis' future is probably in the hands of interim president Ed Richardson.
Ellis is a survivor. Always has been. My guess is that he makes it back for one more season. But if this season disintegrates even further or if there is bad news from the Committee on Infractions, that guess could be as far off as the predictions that Auburn would be a contender in the West this season.
On the other end of the spectrum, Auburn's women's basketball team is driving toward a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After three frustrating seasons, the Tigers are winning the way head coach Joe Ciampi's best teams have always won--with suffocating defense. They lost two key players to academics early in the conference season. Instead of going into a tailspin, they went on a tear.
Three seniors--Le'Coe Willingham, Mandisa Stevenson and Nancy Derrick--will play their final home game Sunday against Florida. It won't surprise me if this team makes a run deep into the tournament.
Though Auburn returns more battle-tested veterans than most in the SEC, there are serious questions that must be addressed beginning with the start of spring practice Sunday.
Probably the two biggest issues are replacing five starters out of the front seven on defense and the offense adjusting to new coordinator Al Borges.
There will be at least as much--probably more--talent on the defensive front than last season. What won't be there is the invaluable experience of fifth-year seniors Demarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson and Reggie Torbor.
Borges has gone to great lengths to make the transition as easy as possible on offense. He has, as much as possible, kept the terminology the same. The running game won't change a whole lot, though Borges says he is determined to get Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field together.
With a more reasonable schedule than last season and numerous players who have been through the SEC wars, the Tigers have another opportunity to make a run at a championship next season. Looking at it seven months out, the pivotal games will be against LSU and Georgia at home and Tennessee and Alabama on the road. Ole Miss could offer a serious challenge in Oxford, depending on whether someone steps forward to fill some of the void left by the departure of quarterback Eli Manning.
Until next time…