It was obvious from the start that this team was maybe the most athletic in Auburn history. But, early on, there was no consistency at point guard and no chemistry. The Tigers struggled to beat the likes of High Point and McNeese State.
Ironically, things started to change in a loss. Last week, Auburn took eighth-ranked Virginia to the wire in Birmingham. The Tigers could have won, maybe should have won. Saturday night in Mobile, they broke through, pounding Marshall 78-60.
Marshall is no world-beater, but it's a pretty good team with some really good players. Auburn broke away from a 32-32 halftime tie with a flurry of acrobatic dunks, slamming down a school record 13 before it was over.
With home games against South Alabama, North Carolina-Asheville and Southern Mississippi, Auburn will probably go into the Southeastern Conference season 8-3 and playing with confidence.
There are several reasons a team that seemed bound for nowhere now has the look of a contender for an NCAA Tournament berth:
*Marquis Daniels. What can you say? Daniels, an affable junior, has played every position on the floor over the past two seasons. He was forced into learning to be a point guard when Jamison Brewer left early for the NBA and Lincoln Glass was academically ineligible. At 6-6 with cat-like quickness, he has learned well. He can score outside or inside and he's always been a defender with few equals.
*Derrick Bird's defense. Bird, a junior college transfer, has taken on the role Bryant Smith played on Auburn's SEC championship team. Whoever coaches want to take out of the game, that's who Bird guards. Marshall's Tamar Slay was averaging 22 points per game going into last Saturday. He scored 10, but five came after Auburn coach Cliff Ellis cleared the bench. Bird dogged him the whole game and, amazingly, never let him score. The five points Slay got were in transition when others picked him up.
*The rebirth of Mack McGadney. Early in the season, McGadney struggled coming back from the major knee injury that cost him most of last season. He's still not the McGadney of old, but he's getting closer and he gives the Tigers a physical presence inside.
*Depth. Even with the puzzling decision of Abdou Diame to transfer, Ellis can send players off the bench in waves. That allows him to keep running and pressing from start to finish, the way he loves to play the game.
*The newcomers. Freshmen Brandon Robinson and Dwayne Mitchell and Bird have added a new dimension. They are who has taken Auburn to another level athletically. Robinson, in particular, has been impressive as a shooter, dunker, rebounder and defender.
After the loss to Virginia, former Auburn coach Sonny Smith said he saw something in the Tigers. "I like Robinson," Smith said. "He reminds me of (former Auburn and NBA star) Chris Morris. I can't believe the way Daniels has learned to play that guard spot. Auburn is going to be good. Mark my words."
There are still some bumps in the road ahead once the SEC season starts, but this Auburn team is clearly headed in the right direction.
Things are looking promising, too, for the women's team. The Tigers had their biggest test of the season Sunday and whipped Florida State 71-59. The Seminoles were No. 25 in the coaches poll and Auburn was No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.
Auburn coach Joe Ciampi has the parts to play the game his way. He, too, has depth. He has a powerful inside presence in Tia Miller Le'Coe Willingham, two talented point guards in Carol Smith and Nicole Louden and plenty of depth. Eight Auburn players played 12 minutes or more against the Seminoles.
The most telling statistic: Florida State, scoring 82 points per game, got just 21 in the first half and never found an offensive rhythm. Ciampi's great teams have always won on defense.
Auburn's football team will surely have fun at the Peach Bowl, but this week is for hard work. The Tigers are having probably their most physical practices since two-a-days. One of the benefits of a bowl bid is extra work for younger players, and Tommy Tuberville and his staff are taking full advantage.
"We're using it like an early spring practice for the younger guys," Tuberville said. "They'll be ready for the holiday break come Friday."
The game itself should be interesting. Both Auburn and North Carolina have had seasons of extremes. The Tar Heels lost their first three games, then crushed Florida State 41-9. They beat Clemson 38-3. The lost 32-31 to Wake Forest at home. They struggled to beat a weak SMU team.
One thing that is certain is Auburn will see on of the nation's top players in defensive end Julius Peppers. "Yeah, I've seen a lot of tape of him," Tuberville said. "I've seen too much tape. Their coach says he's the best he's ever seen." He'll mainly be the responsibility of Auburn left tackle Kendall Simmons. Peppers doesn't move all over the place like Syracuse's Dwight Freeney did. "That will be the marquee matchup of the Peach Bowl," Tuberville said. "It will be two first-round draft choices going at each other. They'll probably be going at each other for several years after this."