The Tigers were easily the SEC's worst team. They finished two games out of 11th place. They were last in almost every offensive category. How did it happen? You know the story. Injuries, defections and dismissals gutted what might well have been a good team. But is that the entire answer?
Sure, it hurt when Jamison Brewer left last spring for the NBA. He was a fine college basketball player, but it's not like he was an All-American. His departure shouldn't have been enough to ruin a season. Even before Kyle Davis was injured, before Abdou Diame, Mack McGadney and Lincoln Glass left the team voluntarily or involuntarily, this Auburn team seemed troubled. It struggled mightily to beat High Point and McNeese State. Jacksonville State was in the game well into the second half. Louisiana Tech went to Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and won.
Things got better for a while, then the SEC season started and everything came apart. It was all the more bitter for Auburn fans because it was only three years ago that the Tigers romped through the SEC with a 14-2 record, won the championship and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Who would have believed it would have gone so bad so fast? More than once I said in this space things weren't as bad as they seemed. I was wrong. Things were every bit as bad as they seemed. I also said the future was bright for a team with five talented freshmen. I still believe that.
I also believe it's time for a thorough examination of basketball at Auburn, about where it can go and if the commitment is there to make it happen. There is no question in my mind that Auburn can win consistently in basketball. Sonny Smith took five straight Auburn teams to NCAA tournaments. His 1986 team was within an eyelash of the Final Four and might well have won it all had it gotten there. The 1999 team was as good as any in the country, though it went out in the Sweet 16.
If it's going to happen consistently, if Auburn is going to be a force in basketball like it is in football, there has to be a different mindset. There has to be a different mindset within the program and there has to be a different mindset with the fans.
What needs to happen? Here is one man's opinion:
1. Beef up the schedule, for goodness sake! Want to have a national reputation? Play teams with a national reputation. If they won't come to Auburn, go to their place. Let it be known Auburn will go anywhere and play anybody. Losing to Duke would help more with the NCAA tournament selection committee than beating High Point. Remember when Bobby Bowden did that in football at Florida State? It worked. He doesn't have to do it anymore.
2. Provide a homecourt advantage. I'm talking about the fans here, particularly students. Does anyone seriously believe Auburn would have lost five games at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum this season if the stands were full of boisterous, loud, intimidating fans for every game? In the great programs, like Duke, the students are there to help win the game, not to be entertained.
3. Make a commitment. Athletic administrators at Auburn need to make it clear that basketball is a priority. They need to do something about the arena at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, to get rid of those ugly brown seats that are more than 30 years old. There needs to be some sort of reconfiguration to get seats closer to the floor to provide a more intimidating atmosphere. Some have described the arena as like being in a dungeon. Forget the silly promotions. No one comes to the game to watch someone chase a person dressed as a telephone. The piped in crowd noise only serves to point out there isn't enough real crowd noise. The best way to promote basketball is to win.
Those things will not, of course, guarantee success, but they will certainly help. Play better teams and there will be more interest. If there is more interest, more people will come. If more people come, there is more homecourt advantage. There is no question that improved facilities would help in every aspect of the program.
No one expects Auburn to be at the top of the SEC every season. But all it takes to go to the NCAA tournament most seasons is to finish in the upper half of the SEC. Ole Miss is going for the third time in four years. Auburn doesn't have a lot of advantages in basketball, but it has more than Ole Miss. Getting to the NCAA Tournament should be the only measure of success on the court. The NIT isn't even worth mentioning.
Auburn should be much improved next season. If the team stays together, the season after that could be a special one. But will it then be time to rebuild again, to wait three or four years to go to another NCAA tournament? History says yes.
Is that good enough? That's the question of the year.
* * *