Marshall: Improvements Coming for AU Hoops

Phillip Marshall writes about Jeff Lebo's Tigers and plans for upgrades to Auburn's basketball facilities.

Auburn's basketball team didn't win in Thursday night's Southeastern Conference Tournament game against Vanderbilt, but it made a statement.

"You may be covering the best coach in the league," a friend from a newspaper in another state told me after the game. "Give him some ammunition and he's going to be hard for people to deal with."

Jeff Lebo's second Auburn team played, in my estimation, as well as they have played in any game all season in the 76-71 loss to Vanderbilt. They had just six turnovers. They hit free throws. They hit 11 three-pointers. They just weren't quite good enough to pull it off against the tournament's home team, the experienced, hot-shooting Commodores.

With one of the nation's younger teams and lacking size and strength inside, Lebo has made his team competitive against the SEC's best for most of the season, a 12-16 record notwithstanding. The Tigers will be bigger, stronger and, obviously, more experienced a year from now. They'll have some more pieces to the puzzle.

But there has not been a more important time in recent Auburn basketball history than the present.

A decision is expected within a matter of weeks on what direction the administration will go in updating Auburn's woeful facilities. Something major is going to be done. It's a matter of what it will be.

It is a fact of life in the SEC that, at most schools, basketball is not the highest priority. The SEC Tournament is such a cash cow that every school turns a profit on basketball. Yes, Auburn has made a profit on basketball this season. Few schools have great facilities, but most have better facilities than Auburn.

It has been an irritation for years. Now it has become a huge burden. Auburn coaches run into questions about it at every turn on the recruiting trail. If you are going to compete with the better teams on the court, you have to compete with them in recruiting. Other coaches tell prospects that Auburn's facilities are a sign that the school is not committed to basketball. More than he sells Auburn basketball, Lebo defends it.

Of course, there are plenty of other issues. Amazingly, Auburn coaches are wary of inviting basketball recruits to come to basketball games at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Why? The facility is unimpressive, but more than that, the crowds are often abysmal and the atmosphere lacking. At a school of close to 25,000, the number of students at basketball games is often measured in the hundreds.

But that's not the issue as the long offseason begins.

As I have said here numerous times, when Lebo was hired in the spring of 2004, interim president Ed Richardson promised him a new practice facility within two years. That hasn't happened, and that's unfortunate. But if the result of the delay is a new arena, it will have been worth it.

Lebo told Auburn administrators from the start that what they really needed was a new arena. Most agreed with him, but for a long time, it was viewed as a financial impossibility. That has changed in recent months.

As plans moved forward for a new practice facility and significant renovations at Beard-Eaves earlier this year, powerful people in high places began to question whether that made sense.

A practice facility would cost in the neighborhood of $15 million. Significant renovations to bring Beard-Eaves into the 21st century would probably cost another $25-30 million or more. And that would be postponing the inevitable. Sooner or later, Auburn will have to have a new basketball arena. How much would it cost 25 years from now? $200 million?

And so the direction changed. Athletic director Jay Jacobs says that, at the least, Lebo is going to get his practice facility and Beard-Eaves is going to be improved. But it seems now that everyone involved wants to go in the other direction and build an arena for basketball, one that would probably seat in the neighborhood of 8,000.

It would be unfair to blame Jacobs for any of this. It's a situation he inherited and had nothing to do with creating. It's not fair to blame Richardson either, other than to say he should have stepped forward and made sure his promise to Lebo was kept. Why Auburn's basketball facilities were dreadfully neglected while facilities in other sports became among the nation's best is a question that might never really be answered. Basketball facilities should have been a higher priority than a track, tennis courts, an outdoor pool or most other projects.

But it does no good to fret about the past. What matters is what happens now.

According to Jacobs, a feasibility study for building a new arena is a couple of weeks from being complete. What that study amounts to is looking at other arenas around the country, what they cost, gauging how much it would cost Auburn and where the money would come from. There also is, of course, the question of where it would be built and what then would be done with Beard-Eaves. The athletic department controls only the arena at Beard-Eaves. The rest of the building, where classes are still taught, is under university control.

To build a new arena, probably at the cost of at least $70 million, is obviously a massive financial commitment. Auburn's athletics department already has one of the larger debt loads among SEC schools. Then again, building a new practice facility and updating Beard-Eaves would be a major financial commitment, too.

Optimism among Auburn administrators that a new arena can be built has grown in recent weeks. One thing that needs to happen is for a major donor or donors to step forward and commit to providing a significant amount of cash. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a new basketball arena could become the first Auburn athletics facility with a corporate name.

Whatever it takes.

Auburn can win in basketball. That has been shown in the past. Sonny Smith took Auburn to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, to the Sweet 16 twice and to an Elite Eight. He did it at a time when SEC basketball was at an all-time high. How good was the SEC in those days? Auburn's 1985 team that won four straight games to win the SEC Tournament and went on to the Sweet 16 was the No. 8 SEC seed. It had future first-round draft choices in Chuck Person and Chris Morris, not to mention guards Frank Ford and Gerald White.

Had Smith's 1986 team won a down-to-the-wire game against Louisville in the regional final, it might well have won the national championship. The same goes for Cliff Ellis' 1999 SEC championship team that lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State.

Since the days of Joel Eaves, when basketball was totally different thing than it is today, only Smith has managed to get it done consistently over a significant period of time. Ellis got Auburn to the Sweet 16 twice and to the second round once, but he managed a winning SEC record just twice in 10 seasons.

Lebo will win at Auburn. I strongly believe that. The Tigers will be significantly better next season. The freshmen who got their baptism by fire this season will form the foundation for a team that should, before they leave, be a real factor again in the SEC.

But if Auburn is to become a consistent force in the SEC, what happens in the next few weeks is more important than players or coaches. It is a decision that will have an impact long after current coaches and administrators are gone.

It's going to be interesting.

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