Auburn Basketball Q&A

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Coach Cliff Ellis and the Auburn basketball Tigers.

With the Southeastern Conference schedule in its final week, there are a lot of questions flying around these days about Auburn's basketball team and the future of Auburn's basketball program. I'll attempt to answer some of them here.

Q: What does Auburn need to do to get in the NCAA Tournament?

A: I believe if the Tigers beat Arkansas and Mississippi State they are a lock. If they beat one and lose to the other, I think they'd need to go at least to the semi-finals, maybe to the final, of the SEC Tournament to have a realistic shot.

Q: What is head coach Cliff Ellis' future?

A: I believe he'll be back next season, regardless of what happens. If Auburn gets into the NCAA Tournament, there's little question he'll be back. It wasn't so long ago that he won 29 games, the SEC championship and had Auburn as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That doesn't happen for a guy who can't coach.

Q: Why are the crowds not better at Auburn basketball games?

A: That's an issue that has been debated at Auburn for many years. Auburn is really not a lot different than most SEC schools. You could hear the echo in Maravich Assembly Center when Auburn played there. Winning fills arenas more than anything else. Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum was consistently packed when the Tigers were on their SEC championship run in 1999. The next season, the arena was sold out in season tickets. There were more people at Midnight Madness than have been at most games this season.

It's something of a myth that most SEC schools consistently fill their arenas. Kentucky does and always has, but Kentucky is on a different level and always will be. Attendance, particularly for weeknight games, has a lot to do with where schools are located and whether they are winning. It's much easier to draw large crowds in a larger city than in a college town. Arkansas should be the role model for Auburn and others, but the Razorbacks' attendance has sagged in recent years, too.

The real mystery is why more students don't attend. Someone in Huntsville or Mobile might be the biggest Auburn basketball fan in the world, but if he or she has to go to work on Thursday morning of if the kids have to go to school, traveling to Auburn for a Wednesday night game isn't usually feasible. It's up to the students, and they aren't showing up. There is no sport in which the crowd can do more to help a team win than basketball.

Q: Is Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum a problem?

A: I know it's popular to say it is, but I don't believe so. It is the equal, or close, to arenas at Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt and Florida. A new arena is a tremendous financial undertaking. The city of Columbia paid half the cost of South Carolina's new arena. Rupp Arena was paid for and is owned by the city of Lexington. I'm not sure how Tennessee paid for Thompson-Boling Arena, but it's much bigger than it needs to be.

I think Beard-Eaves could be upgraded dramatically just by either replacing or renovating the brown wooden seats. Other than that, I don't see the big problem. I believe what Auburn's program needs now is a new practice facility.

Q: Is Auburn's athletic department committed to winning in basketball?

A: In terms of financial resources, it is. Auburn's recruiting budget is competitive with the rest of the SEC. Its coaches' salaries are competitive. Basketball's facility needs, however, are clearly not as high on the priority list as football.

Q: Can Auburn win consistently in the SEC?

A: I believe it can. By winning consistently, I mean contending every year for an NCAA Tournament bid and getting one most years. It only takes finishing in the top six in the SEC to do that. Auburn can never be Kentucky, but it doesn't have to be.

Q: Why does Auburn not recruit better in the state of Alabama?

A: That's a tough one. I don't have a good answer, but I believe it is imperative to the program's future that Auburn makes some headway in the state.

Q: Why is this team not playing as well now as it did earlier?

A: Brandon Robinson's injury was a huge blow. He gives Auburn depth and athleticism inside that simply can't be replaced. I believe the Tigers would have beaten Florida on Saturday if he'd been full-speed. When Auburn was playing at its best, Robinson was scoring in double figures and crashing the boards and guard Nathan Watson was hitting almost 50 percent of his three-point shots. Watson has gone into a slump. On the positive side, Lewis Monroe seems to be rapidly developing into a pretty darned good SEC point guard.

Q: Will Auburn's preconference schedule hurt its NCAA Tournament chances?

A: Though that schedule looks somewhat tougher to the computer than it does to most of us, the answer is yes. Some predict Alabama will get into the tournament with a 7-9 conference record because of its preconference schedule. If Auburn had played a stronger preconference schedule, 8-8 would probably be enough to earn a bid.

If you are going to play tough games, it makes little sense to me to play them against Western Kentucky and Western Michigan. Those teams are good enough to beat you and you get no credit if you win. It seems it would be worthwhile to go on the road for some games in December against the best teams you could schedule. A loss to, say, Arizona would mean more to the NCAA Tournament selection committee than a win over South Carolina State.

Until next time...

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