Running the Fade Route

Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn basketball and football in his Thursday column.

Four days after Auburn's basketball season seemed to take a dramatic upward turn, the Tigers turned and went the other way again.

A trip to Vanderbilt resulted in more missed free throws, more missed opportunities and the third loss in four Southeastern Conference games. Not even Kyle Davis' eight blocked shots could keep the Commodores from making off with a 73-67 victory.

I know, I know, I know. It's hard to win on the road in the SEC. But let's be honest here. It hasn't been all that hard for other teams to win at Vanderbilt. The Commodores had lost 12 straight SEC games before Wednesday night.

For the fourth time, Auburn got out to a substantial lead against an SEC opponent, this time holding Vanderbilt scoreless for six minutes and going up 20-11. For the third time, that lead didn't hold up. Truth is, it even happened in the victory over Alabama. Auburn led 53-43, only to see Alabama score 13 points to take the lead.

The Tigers play defense as well as anyone--tenacious, clawing, in-your-face defense. They just can't score consistently enough to take advantage of it. When the hour grows late, if Marquis Daniels doesn't make a big play, it doesn't get made. He hit a crucial three-pointer to tie the game with Alabama. Against Vanderbilt, he missed.

Live by the jump shot. Die by the jump shot.

So what's the problem?

Though some might suggest otherwise, it isn't coaching. It wasn't so long ago that Cliff Ellis was national Coach of the Year after leading Auburn to its first SEC championship in 40 years. It's not lack of talent. Auburn's athleticism is the equal of anyone in the league.

Youth is part of the problem. Consistency comes with age and experience. But you can't explain it all away with youth, either. Auburn has enough veterans--Daniels, Adam Harrington, Davis, Mack McGadney, Lincoln Glass.

I don't claim to know the answer. I don't claim to know why Auburn players, many of them who have proved in the past they can make free throws, are maybe the worst free throw shooting team since ole James Naismith nailed up that first peach basket. I don't know why the Tigers are so often so good early and so often so helpless late.

I do know this: With a 1-3 record and games at LSU, against Kentucky at home and at Tennessee dead ahead, things look rather bleak. A 1-6 record seems possible if not probable.

There is enough talent on this Auburn team to assure a bright future. But of more concern is the present. From where I sit, this Auburn season looks to be in danger of coming apart. Even an NIT bid might be a long shot.

That could all change with a victory at LSU on Saturday. Make a few free throws, hit some big shots and everybody will feel good again. Maybe it will happen, but much better Auburn teams than this one have found trouble against weaker LSU teams than this one in Baton Rouge. This time, a season could hang in the balance.

ON THE DEFENSIVE

When Paul Rhoads left Auburn to return to Pittsburgh last Saturday, he had taken Auburn's defensive coordinator's job. You can mark that down.

It was when he got back to Pittsburgh and talked with coaches, administrators and players that he decided to stay with the Panthers. Word is he was promised he'd be the next head coach. Whether that's true or not, he made a puzzling decision.

The Auburn job is better in every way--pay, prestige, facilities, conference. You name it, Auburn has more of it than Pittsburgh. But Rhoads didn't come and the search goes on. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is concentrating on recruiting this week, but he says he plans to have a defensive coordinator in place before signing day on Feb. 6.

KUDOS TO MAGGIE

Auburn swimmer Maggie Bowen was recently named Athlete of the Year for Mississippi, her home state. That's a neat honor for a neat person.

Bowen is the epitome of a student athlete--a championship competitor, a championship student and a championship person. She has done herself and her family proud.


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