A Look At Auburn Basketball

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the basketball Tigers as they prepare for Friday's opening round of NCAA Tournament action.

A little after five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Auburn's 2003 basketball season became a success. The Tigers were included in the field of 65 for the NCAA Tournament. That's the way it is at most schools in most seasons. If you get into the big show, you have had a good season. Making a run once you get there is gravy. Auburn and Alabama squeezed in, surely leaving Tennessee wondering how in the world that could happen.

The Tigers deserve a lot of credit for what they accomplished. They refused to listen to those who said they would have the worst team in the SEC. Every time they were knocked down, they got back up and kept on playing hard. This is not a great Auburn team. Far from it. Great teams don't lose seven games by double-figure margins. Great teams don't lose to Western Kentucky and Western Michigan. But you don't have to have a great team to deserve an NCAA Tournament bid.

Donny Calton is one of three seniors on the 2002-2003 Auburn team.

This is a good team. More importantly, it is a team with heart and determination. It is a team that found a way to go 8-8 in the toughest conference in the country. It is a team with a chance to do some good things in the tournament. First-round opponent St. Joseph's is certainly beatable. No. 2 seed Wake Forest, the Tigers' probable opponent if they beat St. Joseph's, can be had, too. The talk of head coach Cliff Ellis being on the hot seat should be go away now. This is his third NCAA Tournament team in five years. He's in no danger and shouldn't be. Having said that, there are still underlying problems with the Auburn basketball program that need to be addressed.

*Though Auburn's schedule ended up rated among the 30 toughest in the nation, the nonconference portion still needs to be upgraded dramatically. The computer seems to like Auburn's nonconference schedule better than I do. All it would take is a couple of games against potential Top 25 teams from big-time conferences. Even if it means going on the road and not getting a return game, Ellis ought to do it. Those kinds of games help you even if you lose. Why not play two big-name teams instead of the likes of Western Kentucky and Western Michigan? There is nothing to lose in playing a Duke or a Kansas or a Maryland. Western Kentucky and Western Michigan are good enough to beat you, but you gain little by beating them.

*Perhaps the most urgent need is to get back into the fray in recruiting in-state. Though three of Auburn's top six players--Marco Killingsworth, Brandon Robinson and Nathan Watson--are from Alabama, many of the state's top prospects don't seem to even give Auburn serious consideration. Since Mark Gottfried arrived at Alabama, the Tide has dominated in-state recruiting. My belief is that Auburn must recruit strongly in its natural base--Alabama, Georgia and Florida--to be successful. It's much easier for players who come from other parts of the country to get frustrated and leave than it is for players who are close to home.

*Find a way to inject some enthusiasm into the program. One way to do that, of course, would be to play some big-name teams in December. But that's only part of it. Where are the students? When Ellis arrived, he worked hard to make going to Auburn basketball games the thing to do. Certainly, it was the thing to do in the championship season of 1999 and even the following season. It doesn't seem to be now. I am told that fraternities have chapter meetings on Wednesday nights during basketball season. Maybe there's something I don't understand, but it would seem simple enough to move those meeting to another night when the basketball team is playing at home. The bottom line about enthusiasm and drawing crowds, of course, is winning. That's the best marketing tool of all.

Those areas must be addressed if Auburn is ever going to move to another level in basketball. The program now is at the level it has been for most of its history--usually good, rarely outstanding, rarely bad. Joel Eaves made Auburn a national power in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sonny Smith went to five straight NCAA Tournaments, making a real run at the national championship in 1986. Ellis, of course, put maybe the best Auburn team ever on the court in 1999. But sustaining that kind of excellence has been an elusive goal.

Auburn is never going to be Kentucky. Neither is any other SEC school. It is always remarkable to go to the SEC Tournament and see the thousands of Kentucky fans who follow their team. Their sheer numbers overwhelm everyone else. But there is no reason Auburn can't be a regular contender for the West Division championship and a regular fixture in the NCAA Tournament. There's no reason Auburn can't find its way to a Final Four. I hear people say it can't happen at Auburn, but I don't see why it can't. When Ellis was named Auburn's head coach, he made the statement that if it happened at Arkansas, there was no reason it couldn't happen at Auburn. Arkansas, of course, has faded from its glory years. The Razorbacks might have been the worst team in the SEC this season. But it did at happen Arkansas for a long time and it will happen again.

This Auburn basketball team has much of which to be proud. Marquis Daniels, Derrick Bird and Donny Calton can go on with their lives knowing they made Auburn basketball better because they refused to listen to those who told them they had no chance. Because of their efforts, hope has replaced despair.

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