Lebo Rebuilding After "Survival" Season

Auburn, Ala.--Starting Friday evening, ready or not, it's full speed ahead for Jeff Lebo as his Tigers officially start preseason practice for his second season as coach of the Auburn men's basketball team.

His first year has been described as a transition season and year two looks more like the start for rebuilding the program with eight newcomers for Lebo to work with following last year's surprising 14-victory season.

With four starters to replace and only one senior on the 2005-2006 team, the Tigers will have a very different look.

"The biggest thing, I think, for this year, is this is kind of a building year for us," Lebo says. "This is when we have a lot of the young kids. Last year, I think, was more of a survival year than anything."

After Cliff Ellis was fired and Lebo was hired, four key players left the program prior to the start of the 2004-2005 season, leaving the new head coach with a shortage of talent except at the guard positions. Lebo managed to squeeze a 14-17 record out of squad that didn't regularly play anybody taller than six-foot-five and and at times used five guards in the lineup at the same time.

"This year we are going to put in place some of the things we are going to do for the future.," says Lebo, who notes that this year's freshmen are players he expects to have around for a long time.

"We will have some size, although not gigantic, we will be able to throw the ball inside a little bit more this year," the coach says. "And, we will have a little bit of depth. I don't see really a lot of difference between our top player and our number 12 guy. That will make, I think, good competitive practices.

"Hopefully, you will see a team that will get better as the year goes on. Show me a team that plays a lot young guys, a lot of new guys, I will show you a team that is going to struggle at times."

Auburn was so short on numbers last year that Lebo suited up in practice to help Tigers prepare for the opponents they would face. He says he doesn't believe that will be necessary this year as his team goes through drills to prepare for the season that starts with a Nov. 14th exhibition game vs. West Alabama and a regular season opener on Sunday, Nov. 20th at home vs. David Lipscomb.

The coach says that with "three true road games" at Colorado State on Nov. 28th, Pitt on Dec. 4 and Texas A&M on Dec. 22 the Tigers will be tested long before the start of SEC play on Jan. 7th at Vanderbilt. "Hopefully, we will be mature enough as a group and tough enough as a group to handle all of that," Lebo says.

The Tigers must replace senior starters Ian Young, Quinnel Brown and Nathan Watson along with the team's leading scorer, Toney Douglas, who transferred to FSU after his freshman season. Those four players combined for 54.3 points of Auburn's team average of 70.7 points per game. They also accounted for 21.1 of Auburn's average of 33.1 rebounds per contest.

Daniel Hayles defended forwards and centers last season. This year he will spend most of his time guarding guards.

The leading returning scorer is sophomore guard Frank Tolbert, who averaged 6.9 points and 3.0 rebounds. Daniel Hayles, who is moving to guard after playing inside last season as a freshman, averaged 6.0 points and 3.1 rebounds.

The team's lone senior, Ronny LeMelle, averaged 6.0 points and 2.3 rebounds, but was shut down early in the season with a knee injury that required surgery.

Guard Brett Howell, who was limited by mono last year, played in 21 games and averaged 1.6 points and 0.7 rebounds. Moses Edun, a 6-6 junior walk-on guard, played in 23 games and averaged 0.8 points and 0.8 rebounds.

"I think Frank (Tolbert) and Hayles are probably the two most improved players," Lebo says. "Frank is in great shape. He looks thin, he looks athletic. He has got his athleticism back...I think we saw signs of him in January really turning the corner."

Tolbert was overweight when he reported to the team last season, but has dropped approximately 40 pounds since then.

More help at guard is expected from a pair of newcomers, 5-11 juco transfer Michael Woodard and 6-3 freshman Quantez Robertson. Woodard is a strong passer who will be the favorite to be the starting point guard, particularly if he can become a consistent scorer.

"We have got to get him to look at the basket a little bit more because we want people to defend him," Lebo says of Woodard. "He has got to get confident with his jump shot when people start to back off him. He is a little smaller and has great quickness so he is going to have to keep people honest with his jump shot."

Robertson and Howell can also play point guard. The Tigers also signed a big guard, 6-5, 220 freshman Rasheem Barrett, who can also play small forward.

Reinforcements on the inside include a trio of 6-7 freshmen forwards--Korvotey Barber, Joey Cameron and Josh Dollard. All three were heavily recruited prospects who should give the Tigers much needed help on the boards.

At the end of fall semester, 6-8 forward Emmanuel Willis will be eligible after finishing his redshirt year as a transfer from Southern Cal. He will be a junior this season and should be a factor on the boards.

Another transfer, 6-8 Quan Prowell from Furman, is sitting out this year as a redshirt.

Lebo says he is looking for his only senior, LeMelle, to be a leader on the court. The 6-5 swingman, who can play big guard or small forward, is probably the team's best perimeter shooter, Lebo says.

Lebo says it is too early to tell who his starters will be. "It is kind of up for grabs right now," the coach notes. "I am going to play a lot of people this year. It will be nice in practice. Last year we had six guys who knew they were going to play. If they went bad, and didn't practice as well as I liked, what was I going to do? Now I can just...‘you go down and sit down here and you try it for a while.' That is always a great motivation. The quickest way to their head, one of my former coaches said, who coached in this league for many years, is through his tail. So, we sit them down a little bit. That helps sometimes."

Comparing this season's team with last year's Tigers, Lebo says this group is more talented, but is very short on college experience. "A lot them are going to be in shock with the speed at which we do things," he predicts. "What we demand from them they are not used to. They are coming from high school where they have been able to coast. They have been able to get out practices, probably, when they didn't feel great. They are not going to be able to do that kind of stuff so physically and mentally it is a little bit overwhelming."

Ronny LeMelle has made a strong recovery from knee surgery.

The Tigers will open SEC play on Jan. 7th at Vanderbilt and this year's conference tournament is also in Nashville, although it is not on the Vandy campus. The tournament is downtown at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville.

"We may be a better basketball team, but not win as many games," Lebo says. "We totally overachieved last year. We won way more than what I thought. We had tough kids last year that were experienced, which we will miss.

"We are going to miss the leadership of Nate Watson and Ian Young and "Q"--experienced guys who were older that knew what it was like to play on the road and play against tough people every night. These kids are going to have to learn it. It takes time. That is going to be frustrating at times.

"We will be more physical," Lebo adds. "We will hopefully be able to defend better. We are going to hopefully be able to defend in the post a little bit more. We are going to be able to throw the ball inside a little bit more."

The Tigers will play two regular season games at home in November vs. Lipscomb and Gardner-Webb and five in December vs. McNeese State, Southeastern Louisiana, Temple, Winthrop and Jacksonville State. The final pre-SEC contest is at home on Jan. 4th vs. Southern Miss.

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