Basketball Program At A Fork In the Road

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on Auburn's basketball and baseball programs.

Auburn has hired a young and energetic basketball coach, one with the pedigree and the work ethic to build a program that can contend for championships. Jeff Lebo knows how to do it. The question now is this: Just how badly do Auburn people want to have an elite program?

1. Do the students want it badly enough to turn out in force for all games, not just those against Kentucky and Alabama and not just when their team is playing on a championship level?

It is students that create the homecourt advantage at any school. Auburn has historically had a relatively small core of students who are loyal basketball fans, but rarely has going to basketball games been "the thing to do." Lebo will work to change that, but so have coaches before him.

2. Do fraternities and sororities want it badly enough to move chapter meetings to times or days that don't conflict with games?

This has been an issue with Auburn coaches for years. It seems like it would be a simple problem to solve, but it hasn't been in the past.

3. Do alumni and fans want it badly enough to use their tickets or make sure others do to fill the arena even for midweek games?

Like other SEC schools, Auburn's attendance is good when the team is contending for a championship and not so good at other times. Games against Kentucky are usually sold out regardless of the circumstances. But if Auburn is to build what it has never had--a program that is mentioned annually among the nation's best--it will need fan support like the nation's best. That means fans that come to see their team play, not the opponent. That means fans that will keep on coming through the difficult days that could lie ahead in the first 2-3 years of Lebo's tenure.

It's not easy to fill the arena during the middle of the work week. Auburn is not in a metropolitan area. But there are a lot more people within driving distance of Auburn's campus than within driving distance of Arkansas' campus. How does Arkansas do it?

4. Does the administration want it badly enough to put big money into improving facilities and creating an intimidating atmosphere inside Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum?

Building a new arena is out of the question. It just isn't financially feasible. But there are things that can be done to make Beard-Eaves more fan friendly and create a more hostile environment for opponents. Hal Baird, the athletic assistant to the president, has some ideas about moving fans closer to the floor and making it more exciting without breaking the bank.

Jeff Lebo

If the fans want it, the students want it and the administration wants it, there isn't a reason Auburn can't be a national force in basketball. Can it be Kentucky? No. But there is no reason, once Lebo's program is in place, that Auburn can't go to the NCAA Tournament most years and contend regularly for the West Division championship.

Those who should know say Lebo, given the support he needs, will get it done. It's going to take some patience. Though the Tigers could make a run next season with eight seniors returning, the following two seasons could be difficult. Some patience will be required. That's when we'll see just how badly Auburn folks really want it.

BIG DAY IN OXFORD

Auburn's baseball team was in danger Sunday of coming home in last place in the SEC West. Instead it came home tied for third, just two games out of first after sweeping a doubleheader from Ole Miss.

The Tigers have had a strange season so far. They have won road series at Tennessee, the overall SEC leader, and Ole Miss, co-leader in the West. They have lost at home to LSU and to Kentucky, clearly the weakest team in the league.

Six of Auburn's 12 SEC games have been decided by one run. Unless something changes, that's the kind of season it's going to be. The Tigers' pitching is strong enough to give them a chance against anyone. Their hitting is inconsistent enough to give anyone a chance against them.

But there is still hope for the offense, which has struggled without power-hitting first baseman Karl Amonite.

Chuck Jeroloman

Junior shortstop Chuck Jeroloman, known as a slick fielder without much offense his first two seasons, is suddenly blossoming at the plate. His two-out, two-run homer in the seventh (and last) inning lifted the Tigers to a 3-2 victory in the second game against Ole Miss on Sunday.

Tug Hulett and Sean Gamble have shown themselves to be outstanding SEC hitters in the past, but they have struggled this season. If they break out of their slumps, Auburn could make yet another run to an NCAA regional.

Until next time…

(Questions or comments for Phillip: Email him at pmarsh9485@msn.com)


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