Marshall: The Next Big Test For AU Basketball

Phillip Marshall writes about what he believes needs to happen with the AU basketball program.

It'll be over soon. Jeff Lebo's second Auburn basketball season, on the court, has been much like his first. The Tigers have played with heart and dedication, but more often than not, they've been overmatched.

Whether Auburn finishes as the No. 4 seed in the Southeastern Conference West or the No. 6 seed, whether it wins a game in the league tournament or doesn't, is really window dressing. Lebo knew in his heart that this season, with five freshmen and two sophomores among his top eight players, would be a struggle. And it has been.

What matters most is where the program is headed.

Auburn administrators have talked about knowing by the end of basketball season where they plan on going with facilities. The season will be over next week. It's time for somebody--president Ed Richardson, athletic director Jay Jacobs, somebody--to be bold and make a decision.

Will there be a new arena? If there will be, the process needs to get moving. From the planning stages to completion, it'll probably take 3-4 years for a new arena to open its doors.

If there isn't going to be a new arena, the desperately needed practice facility that Lebo was promised by Richardson two years ago he would have within two years has just been delayed yet again.

The word is that there will either be a new arena or there will be a practice facility and a major facelift for Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. A new arena would be a huge shot of energy for the basketball program, but a practice facility and upgraded arena wouldn't be bad either. Really, it's time to stop talking about possibilities and start making decisions.

Though the record might not show it, the signs of progress on the court are clear. All of Auburn's freshmen have shown they can play at the SEC level. Sophomore Frank Tolbert is a terrific athlete who just needs to harness his aggressiveness. Furman transfer Quan Prowell, who sat out this season, is probably the most athletic and maybe most talented player on the Auburn roster.

There are still needs, of course, and Auburn coaches are working hard on the recruiting trail to fill those needs. It's not unreasonable to expect that the Tigers will be, if not contenders, at least factors in the SEC West next season.

Lebo said from the start the process would not be quick and would sometimes be painful. He would do the job, he promised, the right way. There would be no quick fixes.

The hiring of Lebo in April 2004 was, in some ways, a grand experiment.

At most SEC schools, basketball is a hit-or-miss proposition. That's why Auburn can go to the Sweet 16 twice in five years and also win five or fewer SEC games twice in those same five years. That's why Alabama can pack its arena the last couple of seasons when, in 1999, there were clearly more Tiger fans than Tide fans when Auburn played at Coleman Coliseum. The list goes on.

Too often, SEC basketball programs hire assistant coaches to recruit. Those assistants do their recruiting in the area in which that coach feels comfortable. That is no way to build long-term stability. Former Auburn assistant Tracy Dildy is a good man and a terrific recruiter, but when you are at Auburn or Ole Miss, you're not going to win many championships by recruiting in Chicago.

Jeff Lebo's Tigers wrap up the home season on Saturday at 1 p.m. vs. South Carolina on Senior Day for Ronny LeMelle.

There are exceptions, of course, but many SEC coaches build teams and not programs--win big for a year or two, then take several years to win big again.

Hal Baird, who was the main force behind the hiring of Lebo, believed Auburn basketball could and should be something different. He lobbied hard for Lebo with Richardson and, in the end, got his way.

You don't have to be an expert to see that Lebo is a masterful on-the-floor coach. Despite being wet behind the ears and sometimes physically overmatched, the Tigers have often given the best teams in the league fits before finally being worn down.

Lebo's program goes far beyond the court. He and his staff teach lessons in living as well as in playing. His ways don't go down well with everyone. The departures of Marco Killingsworth, Lewis Monroe and Brandon Robinson before Lebo ever coached a game and of Tony Douglas after last season speak to that.

Lebo has a plan, and he's sticking to it. He intends to sign good people as well as good players and to build a solid program that will stand the test of time, not one that makes a run and flames out.

Will the administration finally see that he gets the tools he needs to make it happen? I believe it will, but it's time for the talk to end and the action to begin.

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