In a battle for first place in the Southeastern Conference West, Auburn looked like it didn't belong. Except for an Auburn flurry at the start of the second half, it was never a competitive game. Auburn missed point-blank shots, was absurdly woeful at the free throw line and lost 63-46. What looked to be a turnaround season just a few weeks ago now looks a lot like too many other Auburn basketball seasons.
Ellis and his players say it's not too late to get it back. They are right, of course. At 17-7 and 6-5, Auburn is a game behind Mississippi State in the West with five to play. But talking about it and doing it are very different things. Auburn might get a road win at Ole Miss, LSU or Mississippi State, but there's nothing about this team right now that would indicate it.
As this season picks up downhill momentum, it grows ever more likely that the program will get a long, hard look from those in positions of power. There were troubling signs, even as Auburn broke out of the gate 4-0 in the SEC.
The sophomore class--Brandon Robinson, Lewis Monroe, Marco Killingsworth, Nathan Watson and Troy Gaines--is very good. But amazingly, there is not a freshman scholarship player on Auburn's roster. Kyle Davis and limited junior college transfers Chris Lollar and Rodney Tucker are the only juniors. Senior Marquis Daniels, one of the better players I've seen in any conference this season, makes this a team capable of winning. Who will replace seniors Daniels and Derrick Bird on and off the court?
The list of those who have come into the program and left in recent years is long, led by forward Abdou Diame and guard Steve Leven, who left this season after playing in two exhibition games. The result is that only five players on the Auburn team were signed as freshmen. Watson is still a walk-on.
There is significant uneasiness and unhappiness among Auburn supporters. The SEC championship of 1999 seems long ago. Last season's 4-12 record left a bad taste that has yet to be removed. A nonconference schedule that was, at best, uninspiring didn't help. The crowds at most preconference games were miniscule. There was little excitement when the SEC season started. Not even a game for first place could fill the arena Wednesday night.
The question comes over and over again--in telephone calls, in emails. Why can Auburn not have a consistently competitive basketball program? The truth is I believe Auburn can have that kind of program. Sonny Smith took the Tigers to five straight NCAA Tournaments and was within a shot of going to the Final Four in 1986.
The budget is not a problem. Auburn's program is funded on the same level as most others in the SEC. Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum isn't the nicest, but it is nice enough. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina have basketball palaces. Beard-Eaves is no better or worse than arenas at other league schools.
Nobody expects Auburn to be Kentucky, but if Ole Miss and Mississippi State can be consistently competitive, it's hard to come up with a reason it can't happen at Auburn. The truth is, in today's environment, all it takes to keep most people happy is to finish in the top six in the SEC and go to the NCAA Tournament most years. Anything after that is gravy. From President William Walker down, Auburn officials believe that is where the program should be and, in fact, are going to insist on it.
Why is it not happening? I don't believe it has anything to do with marketing the program. It doesn't matter how many contests you have, how many people you hire to jump off trampolines and dunk the ball at halftime. I don't believe it is because Auburn people don't support the program. What matters is winning.
Putting it simply, Auburn isn't getting enough good players, or at least isn't keeping enough good players. There's no doubt Ellis knows the game. There's no doubt his staff knows the game. But while Auburn has some very good players, it does not have as many as the better teams in the SEC. Auburn struggles to get players in its major recruiting base. Frequently, the top players in Alabama don't even list Auburn among the teams they are considering. And no matter what the sport, that's where it all starts. No coach can win consistently without good players.
There are ups and downs in any season, but in the end, there is no place to hide from a 16-game SEC schedule. Still, none of that really explains what has happened to this team. It can't be overlooked that Auburn has not beaten a team with a winning conference record, but Mississippi State had not beaten one either before Wednesday night. It's not so much about winning and losing as it is about the cracks suddenly showing in this team.
Even in defeat, the Tigers were far more impressive at Kentucky and Georgia, two of the league's top teams, than they have been the past two games. At Alabama last Saturday and against Mississippi State at home, they looked hopelessly overmatched in the first half. Ellis says he believes inexperience at playing for high stakes has taken away his team's aggressiveness.
The Tigers better get it back soon or a once-promising season is going nowhere.