Oh, Auburn could still find its way to the NIT. That would be quite an accomplishment considering where this team has come from, but the NIT is still nothing more than a minor league tournament for teams that didn't get where they wanted to be. Wednesday night's victory was about the future.
Four freshmen started for the second straight game. Freshman point guard Lewis Monroe sparked a 17-0 run that got Auburn back into a game it seemed had surely gotten away. Freshman guard Dwayne Mitchell laid his guts on the line against Ole Miss star Justin Reed, then stepped up and made the biggest shot of the game when he hit a three-pointer to make it 63-58 with 46 seconds left.
Auburn's freshmen have taken their lumps over the course of the season. They have learned hard lessons and learned how to play the game in the rough and tumble world of the Southeastern Conference. And their confidence is growing. "I know the record doesn't show it, but we still think we're one of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference," said point guard Derrick Bird, a junior college transfer who scored 22 points against Ole Miss.
There's nothing pretty about an 11-11 overall record or a 3-8 SEC record, but it's easy to see there are some good days in the future for this Auburn basketball team.
The similarities with the Alabama team of two years ago are striking. Alabama started four freshmen during much of the 2000 season. The talent of Erwin Dudley, Rod Grizzard, Kenny Walker and friends was obvious. But they couldn't win consistently. They even lost to Samford. Today, the Crimson Tide is 9-2 and has all but locked up the SEC West and leads the overall race.
Brandon Robinson, Marco Killingsworth, Dwayne Mitchell, Lewis Monroe and Nathan Watson are as talented as any group of freshmen around. Kyle Davis and Abdou Diame are but sophomores. Marquis Daniels and Adam Harrington have another season. Auburn will be a definite NCAA Tournament threat next season. By the next season, it should be a favorite to contend for a championship.
As for the rest of this season, the Tigers should win their final two home games against South Carolina and LSU. They'll be definite underdogs on the road at Mississippi State, Florida and Alabama. To have a real shot at an NIT bid, they'll probably have to win one of those road games. If they can go 3-2 in their last five games, they'll have at least a break-even record after the SEC Tournament.
Marie Robbins, Alabama's director of compliance, gave a remarkable interview last week to Steve Kirk of The Birmingham News. Robbins talked of the emotional toll Alabama's fight with the NCAA has taken on her. Remarkably, she talked of how former Alabama coaches tried to have her fired and questioned why they were not mentioned in the report from the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
From here, it seems her words did real damage to Alabama's appeal. Much of the wailing at Alabama has been about no coaches or administrators being named. Here is the director of compliance saying they should have been. Had they been, the penalties could have been even worse.
Nobody should make too big of a deal out of the loss to Samford by Auburn's baseball team. In baseball, more than any other sport, the Samfords of the world can beat the Auburns of the world. Samford isn't a bad team.
What does it mean that Auburn lost to the Bulldogs a few days after sweeping Virginia Commonwealth? Not much. The 1995 Auburn team went 50-13 overall and 19-8 in the SEC. It spent time ranked No. 1 in the nation and advanced to the regional final.
In February, that Auburn team lost back-to-back games to Birmingham-Southern and Samford. Auburn's 1994 College World Series team lost to Jacksonville State, East Tennessee State, Troy State and Mercer. A baseball season is a marathon, and it's just getting started.
* * *