Marshall: Lebo's Program Gaining Momentum

Phillip Marshall discusses Jeff Lebo's strategy for building a basketball program at Auburn, rather than just an occasional strong team under Cliff Ellis.

Jeff Lebo could have sold his soul, done whatever it took to keep Marco Killingsworth, Brandon Robinson, Dwayne Curtis and Lewis Monroe around, and possibly have taken his first Auburn basketball team to the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

He didn't.

Lebo could have gone for a quick fix, signing a bunch of junior college players, and possibly won more games.

He didn't.

Lebo was named Auburn's head coach in April 2004, replacing Cliff Ellis. He said then he wanted to build a program, not a team. He wanted consistency, not an occasional flash of excellence.

Almost three years later, Lebo isn't there yet. But he's getting there.

No one can argue that last Saturday's 86-77 victory at Alabama was a giant step forward for Lebo and his program. It gave Auburn its first sweep of Alabama since 1999 and only its second in more than 20 years. It was no fluke, either.

The Tigers have had their ups and downs through this season, winning some games they would have been expected to lose and losing some they would have been expected to win. But they left no doubt against Alabama. They crushed Alabama 81-57 at home. Had Lebo not told his team to slow things down with an 18-point lead in the second half, last Saturday's game might have been just as lopsided.

Amazingly, Auburn, at 16-13 and 6-8, could still win a share of the Southeastern Conference West Division championship if it can beat LSU at home Wednesday night and win at Ole Miss on Saturday.

Without a single senior on the team and only three juniors, the future is looking brighter all the time. It's a pretty safe bet that Auburn won't be picked to finish last or close to last in the SEC next season.


Frank Tolbert is the only player to ride out the storm all three seasons with Lebo.

Lebo is going to get Auburn back into postseason play. One more win will probably get an NIT bid this season. An NCAA Tournament bid will certainly be within the Tigers' grasp next season. It's still not out of the question this season.

But Auburn has done all that before, even winning a conference championship in 1999 with what might be the best basketball team ever in our state. What has been hard at Auburn is building a program that can win consistently.

Sonny Smith did it for a while, taking five straight teams to the NCAA Tournament from 1984-88. Other than those years, it hasn't happened since the days of Joel Eaves, when the game bore little resemblance to the game that is played today.

Cliff Ellis' 10 Auburn seasons tell that story.

Ellis had mostly winning overall records because his nonconference schedules made sure of it. He went to two Sweet 16s, but he had just two winning SEC records and one break-even SEC record.

In 1999 the Tigers went 29-4, 14-2 and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In 2000, they were 24-10 and 9-7, a record that would have been better had Chris Porter not been caught taken money from an agent and declared ineligible.

That was it for winning SEC records.

Can Lebo do better? Can he establish a program that makes the NCAA Tournament more often than not? That remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain: He is determined to do it. The idea that he is at Auburn waiting for a better opportunity is a myth that has grown, even among Auburn people, that has no basis in reality.

Here is what Lebo told me before the SEC Tournament last season:

"I'm not going anywhere," Lebo said. "We love it at Auburn, and I think we can get it done at Auburn. I'm either going to get it done, or I'm done."

The only potential move that could turn his head, Lebo said, is North Carolina, where he was an All-American point guard.

"Maybe, if that was ever to come open," Lebo said, "but I'm not even sure I would do that one."

Starting virtually from scratch, playing in dilapidated arena, Lebo has Auburn basketball moving in the right direction. In June, the Board of Trustees will approve construction of a new arena at a cost of almost $100 million. The talent base and the confidence within the program are growing.

Big things could still happen this season, but the years ahead should be very interesting indeed.

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I am doing a new blog on Auburn athletics on al.com. It's called Tracking the Tigers. Simply go to al.com, go to Auburn sports and click on the Tracking the Tigers link. It'll be updated daily, sometimes more than once a day. Check it out.

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Until next time...


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