Marshall: Big Opportunity For Lebo's Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn's game against Florida on Saturday and what the NCAA will do about Reggie Bush.

Who would have thought it?

When Auburn meets No. 1 Florida at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, it will be a matchup of the two Southeastern Conference division leaders.

It's no surprise, of course, that the Gators lead the East. They are the defending national champions and have the same players that won it. But Auburn leading the West? Nobody would have predicted that.

Regardless of what happens Saturday against the Gators, Tuesday night's 81-57 rout of Alabama before a packed house at Beard-Eaves was a watershed moment for third-year coach Jeff Lebo's program.

Lebo has patiently built from the ground up, avoiding the temptation to go for quick fixes. It doesn't take a basketball expert to see that his last two recruiting classes are better – much better – than the so-called experts rated them. Other than junior Frank Tolbert, every player who participated in taking down the Tide was a Lebo recruit.

Another packed house is expected Saturday to see if the Tigers can take advantage of an opportunity to make a real splash. A victory over Florida would thrust this team into strong contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Looking at the SEC schedule before the season, it was obvious that Auburn's first half was much tougher than its second half. If the Tigers could upset Florida or win on the road at South Carolina next week, they would make the turn at 4-4. Considering the strength of their schedule, four more wins in the second half of the season might be enough to make the field of 65.

Certainly, all the pieces are not yet in place. If Florida plays at the top of its game, Florida will win Saturday. But not even Florida often plays at the top of its game on the road.

Regardless, Tuesday's romp made a clear statement. It might happen this year or it might happen next, but Auburn basketball is at last emerging from the shadows. …

Moving on …

The NCAA is about to be put to the test. Are there really sacred cows, schools that are treated differently than the rest when it comes time to enforce the rules?

A lot of people say there are. The NCAA has always insisted that line of thinking is hogwash. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't.

Former USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and his family, it is alleged, took more than $200,000 from one group of sports agents before deciding to hire another. Those agents, naturally, were unhappy and wanted their money back. One thing led to another, and now there are supposedly tapes backing up accusations of megabucks going to the Bushes.

Could Bush already have been a professional at USC?

Having spent much of the day Friday on the road, it was fascinating to hear some national talk shows. The take in each was pretty much the same. "Everybody does it." "Pete Carroll didn't know." You get the picture.

Even in the NCAA's court, which doesn't resemble a real one, Bush and his family are entitled the presumption of innocence. But I'll be honest: I presume them guilty.

Bush isn't going to cooperate with NCAA investigators. Neither is his family. They don't have to. But an upcoming lawsuit could and probably will make everything public.

Bush is beyond the NCAA's reach now. The question is about USC.

Did Carroll know? Should he have known? Were there other players involved in shady dealings?

In the NCAA's way of looking at things, it's just as damning if you should have known as it is if you did know.

When Alabama's program was all but destroyed by the Albert Means scandal, NCAA officials praised Alabama administrators, said they had tried to do things the right way, and then leveled some of the toughest sanctions ever.

When the NCAA watchdogs want to sanction a program, it's going to happen. I mean, they found a way to say that Mark Komara, who can't stand Auburn, was an Auburn booster and used that revelation to nail the Tiger basketball program. It's hard to be much more creative than that.

When those same watchdogs don't want to sanction a program, they don't. Maurice Clarett, scoundrel though he might be, blew the whistle on Ohio State and coach Jim Tressel. He gave names and dates and times.

The NCAA's response was one big yawn.

USC has been asking for trouble for several years. Carroll has sought the support of the rich and famous in Hollywood. He has not only invited them to support the program, but to be part of the program.

Mix that kind of money and that kind of celebrity with college athletics and you are asking for trouble.

So far, USC has suffered only some embarrassment. But the test is coming.

Are there really sacred cows, schools that are treated differently than others?

Watch what happens at USC, and you'll have your answer.

Until next time …

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