Marshall: A Look At Lebo's Rebuilding Effort

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn basketball program.

Barring a totally unexpected call from the NIT, Jeff Lebo's third season as Auburn's basketball coach is over.

What are we to make of Lebo's program three years after he moved south from Chattanooga?

Any evaluation based on Thursday's performance in the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Georgia wouldn't be a good one. Other than an 82-59 loss to Ole Miss at home, it might have been Auburn's worst performance of the SEC season.

But there is often a tendency to put too much stock in one great performance or one bad one. Saturday's performance was a bad one, and because it was on a big stage, it naturally got more attention. But the previous four games were good ones for the Tigers, even the gut-wrenching at Ole Miss that cost them a share of the West Division championship.

Despite what happened at the Georgia Dome, that Lebo's program has made significant progress is beyond dispute. If he had chosen to schedule like some before him instead of playing nonconference games against Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, he could have had 20 wins this season.

The Tigers had their first winning season in Lebo's years. They finished 7-9 in the SEC and were oh so close to doing better than that and winning a share of a championship. They swept Alabama. They had big wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

That happened despite playing most of the first half of the season without Josh Dollard and Quan Prowell, who were suspended, and Kelvin Lewis, who was injured. The impact of those missed games went far beyond just having to play games without them.

Chemistry is more important in basketball than perhaps any sport. We'll never know how different Auburn's team might have been at the end if those three had been there from the beginning.

But that's the way it happened, and it's over now. What matters most is the future.

Every player off this season's team is eligible to return next season. There'll be more recruits. For the first time in his Auburn tenure, Lebo won't be forced to rely on freshmen if they aren't ready.

Auburn should have a good team next year. A great one? Not likely.

Lebo had a decision to make when he arrived at Auburn in the spring of 2004. He could go for a quick fix, loading up with junior college players, or he could be patient and first build a solid foundation. He chose the latter, and his program is still a work in progress.

Other than Sonny Smith's run to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, no Auburn coach since the days of Joel Eaves, more than 40 years ago, has been a consistent winner against SEC competition. Auburn has been a program capable of a big year now and then, but for whatever reason, incapable of sustaining it. Cliff Ellis had perhaps the best team in Auburn history in 1999. Two years later, he won five SEC games. So it has been for too long.

Lebo believes Auburn can have a consistent winner, one that is in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid more often than not. He also knows it's not there yet.

There a positive signs on the court and off. This team was clearly Lebo's best yet. A new arena is coming. Board of Trustees approval in June is a mere formality.

But not all is positive. Auburn must find a way to get into the fight for the top players in Alabama. Auburn students and supporters must find it within themselves to get behind the basketball program with more than words and to show up for games, not just to be entertained but to help their team win.

Auburn basketball is approaching perhaps the most important time in its history. Lebo is widely regarded in the coaching business as a rising star. Despite what some insist on believing, he does not have wandering eyes. He wants to get it done at Auburn.

If having a coach as talented as Lebo and making the massive financial commitment of building a new arena isn't enough, you have to wonder if anything will ever be enough.

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