Tigers Looking Forward, Not Backwards

Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo talks about the disappointment of not making the NCAA and the prospect of competing well in the NIT.

Auburn, Ala.—Auburn put together a remarkable run to finish the regular season and was hoping, perhaps expecting, to get an NCAA tournament invite. However, that didn't happen. Just three days after finding out their fate, the Tigers begin play in the NIT looking to forget the past and move forward.

"We were disappointed," Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said about getting left out of the big dance. "We have to put that behind us very quickly. I told my team that in my eyes you certainly deserve to be in. You look at the teams that went in from our league and we're 4-2 against those teams. It was heartbreaking to look at the kids and see their disappointment.

"I told them they could be disappointed for the rest of the day (on Selection Sunday) and when you come to practice on Monday we've got to put that behind us," he adds. "We've got to be ready to play. You're playing in the postseason and we haven't been in the postseason here at Auburn in a while. It was frustrating to do all that we could do, and the way that we did it coming down the stretch."

Auburn returned to practice on Monday for Wednesday's home game against UT-Martin at 7 p.m.

"Our kids have been tough," Lebo notes. "They've been resilient. We feel like we've been playing in a must-win situation pretty much for a month and a half. The kids are going to have to do that. It's just what they're going to have to do. If you play right now you're playing against all good teams, all teams that have proven themselves. People don't realize how hard it is to get into that tournament. It is so, so difficult. We've got a chance to play in another one, one that is rich in tradition and has got a lot of good teams in it. We haven't played in the postseason. That's something that our kids will be excited to do quickly as this wears off."

Watching the selection show, Lebo says he had a bad feeling early on that the Tigers wouldn't get their name called.

"When I saw Tennessee come up as a nine, I was shocked to be honest with you," Lebo says. "That's kind of when I knew, ‘Boy, we could be in some trouble because that's certainly a statement of what the (committee) thinks about our league.' With their scheduling, with their RPI, that was a bit of a shocker to me.

"I know the committee has a hard choice," he continues, "but it's really frustrating for all the SEC coaches to see how much backlash we got or negative talk about our league being so down. I know that's frustrating for all of us."

The knock against Auburn was not beating anybody strong out of conference. The Tigers lost close neutral court games to Northern Iowa and Dayton, both tournament teams, and played well in a loss at Xavier.

Auburn also scheduled and beat Virginia and George Washington, a pair of programs that normally field solid teams but just happened to be down for the 2008-2009 season.

For Auburn, not traditionally known as a basketball power around the country, it can be difficult to get competitive schedule.

"People think scheduling is easy," Lebo explains. "You just can't call somebody up–a North Carolina, a Duke–and say, ‘Let's play home and home.' It just doesn't work that way. It's a lot more difficult to get those upper-echelon teams to play you.

"The top of the top are typically playing each other in neutral site games a lot now," he continues. "You see a couple here or there playing on the road. It's not as easy as what you may think, especially for the perceived lower level teams in those higher conferences to play better people home and home. It's just not an easy thing to do. That's where it's a little bit frustrating."

Though Auburn didn't make the NCAA tournament, it did get a No. 1 seed in the NIT and home-court advantage all the way to the final four in New York City.


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