Following a year where the Tigers nearly won the SEC West and expected to return every key contributor, Jeff Lebo's team is in trouble with only six healthy scholarship players and games against Xavier, Arkansas and Florida in the upcoming week.
"It's a tough situation," Lebo explains. "No doubt about it. We have to have everybody playing. We've got to shoot the ball very, very well at all of our spots. Frank (Tolbert) and DeWayne Reed are guys that are really going to have to shoot the ball for us. Quan (Prowell) is a guy inside at the five position that can shoot the ball for us--one of our better shooters. We have to shoot the ball extremely well from the perimeter to have a chance because we really don't have any inside presence in there."
The latest hit was to Korvotney Barber, who broke his hand in Auburn's win over Towson on Dec. 29. Lebo has been forced to play small ball because of the lack of size available, but there aren't even enough bodies to play an up-tempo game.
Kelvin Lewis transferred to Houston after one season at Auburn, Reed broke his foot over the summer, Archie Miaway didn't make the grades to be eligible, incoming freshman Tyrell Lynch couldn't get qualified, Josh Dollard had to take a redshirt for medical reasons and Quan Prowell was suspended for the first six games.
That was just before the season started. Reed is playing but at less than 100 percent, Boubacar Sylla suffered an ankle injury is out indefinitely, Lucas Hargrove injured his wrist and isn't an offensive threat because of a cast, and Barber is expected to miss the first half of the SEC season with his injury.
"We had a year last year where we thought we had turned the corner a little bit," Lebo says. "You think you've got your best team back, and you've injuries and suspensions and you don't have your best players.
"It's hard, but you can't control a lot of the things," he adds. "My focus has been on the team to try to get them ready to play and try to find a way for us to be competitive. It's hard. It's frustrating at times. Practices are very difficult to try to figure out what to do. I've called coaches--my mentors--and they've never been in situations like that so they didn't give me any answers. It's a hard thing. I feel for the kids. You've got to realize in practice they take almost every rep. When we're doing team stuff, we're going against five walk-on players.
"They've tried their butt off and I love them to death--we wouldn't be able to do anything without them--but we just... We build confidence," Lebo jokes. "It's just difficult. It's odd. I've never been in a situation quite like it. The kids have been resilient, they've been tough, they've battled and fought."
Lebo dealt with size and lack of depth issues his first two seasons at Auburn, but what he has suffered this year has been unheard of. Walk-on Larry Williams, who wasn't even an invited walk-on, had to play 19 minutes in Auburn's win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday. He played well, but probably isn't on the same level athletically as Auburn will be playing against in its three games this week.
Hargrove, who returned much sooner than expected, was just a body on the court. His only marks on the stat sheet were a missed shot and a foul in eight minutes.
"I thought Larry played pretty well," Lebo says. "He passed the ball pretty well, he made some shots and he was in the right spot at the right time. Nineteen minutes for a freshman redshirt walk-on in that game, I thought he did some good things for us.
"Lucas just gave us some minutes," he continues. "He hasn't practiced since he got hurt, live. He just got in to do some dummy stuff with his cast on, because he couldn't practice with his cast on because he might hurt somebody. He just gave us some defense and offensively he didn't give us a whole heck of a lot. He wasn't ready yet, but I appreciate his effort in wanting to get in and help the team. He knows what kind of situation we're in. We were able to rest some guys in his eight minutes."
Prowell, Tolbert, Reed, Quantez Robertson and Rasheem Barrett have all proven their worth for the Tigers, but the other available scholarship player is Matt Heramb, who has only logged 73 points in 236 minutes in his Auburn career.
Lebo says he's going to have to micromanage the game and also change practice routines in order to try to keep the team going in the right direction.
"We'll try to use some timeouts, we're going to change defenses, which we've done a little bit more lately to try to hide weaknesses that we have," he says. "We typically have been a team that shoots around hard the day of the game. We've really cut that back because we're not able to exert the energy because guys are playing so many minutes. We've changed that a little bit.
"Our practices will become short," Lebo adds. "We're doing more individual stuff because it's hard to simulate anything in practice. We've spent a little more time on shooting, ball-handling skill work that typically we wouldn't do as much during the season. To get anything done, to get competitive, we've got to go three-on-three. The game is five-on-five. So we've got to get Tez to go against Reed, Frank to go against Rasheem, Quan to go against Matt, something like that. That's what we've got to do to get anything accomplished. More three-on-three, two-on-two or one-on-one. Those kinds of things you've got to do to get some sort of competitiveness in your practices."
On Sunday Auburn plays a 10-3 Xavier team coming off a 38-point victory over Virginia. Tipoff from Beard-Eaves is set for 2 p.m. CST