By Mark Murphy
Inside The Auburn Tigers
With enough newcomers to field an entirely new starting lineup, Tony Barbee should have a deeper and more talented basketball team in season two as head coach of the Auburn Tigers.
Another reason to expect more victories is the return to good health of perhaps the team's top player, junior guard Frankie Sullivan, who has bounced back from ACL surgery that sidelined him for all but six games of the 2010-2011 season.
After a poor start the Tigers found a way to win 11 games by steadily improving defensively and at times showing flashes of good play on offense. However, the overall theme for the season was that the Tigers struggled to get consistent scoring. For the season the Tigers averaged just 62.4 points due to anemic 39.8 shooting from the field, which ranked 11th in the SEC.
Barbee says his Tigers have improved significantly heading into year two.
"I think we have done that in every area of our program and our player development," he says. "Our players have all improved. They are better. They are bigger. They are stronger.
"We have done it in our recruiting through our first full-time recruiting class when you consider the transfers, Varez Ward and Noel Johnson, and then our three incoming freshmen in Willy Kouassi, Bernard Morena and Cedric McAfee," Barbee adds.
However, the coach says the Tigers are still developing.
"We have made progress in the past year, but we still have work to do to get to where we want to be."
Help is on the way with Sullivan back. As a sophomore two years ago, the guard led the Tigers in three-point shooting by making 37 percent of his tries while also nailing 85 percent of his free throws. He hit his first 27 shots at the foul line to open that season to set an Auburn record. He was also named the team's MVP on defense.
More outside shooting help is expected from McAfee, a 6-3 freshman from Melrose High in Memphis, where he made 58 percent of his threes as a senior. McAfee was a two-time All-State selection and was ranked as the nation's 33rd best shooting guard prospect by Scout.com.
Although the Tigers will have to wait until December to play him in games, Johnson is a 6-6 shooting guard who transferred from Clemson. Johnson averaged just 4.8 points as a freshman in 2009-2010 and played just briefly last season before leaving Clemson, but he was a prolific scorer at Fayette County, Ga., High School.
Considering Auburn's record last season, it is safe to conclude this is a team that needs help at every position. A pair of high school teammates from Central Park Christian in Birmingham, 6-8 forward Bernard Morena and 6-10 center Willie Kouassi, are athletic big men who are expected to contribute immediately.
Another Tiger scheduled to make his Auburn debut is a point guard with solid credentials. Finally ready to contribute after sitting out last season while recovering from an injury, Ward is a 6-2 redshirt sophomore transfer from Texas. He suffered a serious leg injury at the start of the 2009-10 season that sidelined him for more than a year. Ward opted for a fresh start closer to home at Auburn.
Ward opened the 2009-10 season as a starter for the Longhorns before being lost for the season with the serious leg injury. In his three starts before being hurt, he averaged 6.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Barbee is hoping the additions to the roster will greatly outweigh the losses, even with the team's leading scorer and rebounder, Earnest Ross, quitting and transferring to Missouri. If the coach is upset about losing Ross, he has done a good job of hiding it. A 6-5 forward, Ross averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds last year during an up and down sophomore season.
The leading returning scorer is 6-8 senior forward Kenny Gabriel, a player who stepped up his performance level considerably last season. He raised his scoring average from 2.8 points as a sophomore to 10.3 as a junior. Only three other players in the SEC had a bigger increase in scoring production. Gabriel's rebounding average improved from 1.4 to 5.8 per contest.
Another player who improved significantly is 6-10 center Rob Chubb. As a freshman he averaged 1.3 points and 1.6 rebounds and played just briefly in seven games. Last season Chubb made 16 starts and averaged 7.6 points and 3.8 rebounds.
One of the most admired players on the team, junior point guard Josh Wallace, is a walk-on whose role on the team expanded under Barbee. After averaging 1.2 points and 1.0 assist as a redshirt freshman in 2009-10, Wallace improved to 5.7 points, 3.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds as a sophomore.
A player who made dramatic improvement during his freshman season, 6-2 guard Chris Denson, showed toughness on defense and the ability to score in transition. He averaged 5.9 points and 1.6 rebounds playing in 20 games while starting three times.
Barbee is expected to get a lot of help from a pair of sophomores who showed flashes of good play last season, but were a long way from being consistent. Allen Payne started 18 times and averaged 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds. Josh Langford started 12 times and averaged 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds.
During a season in which 11 Tigers appeared in the starting lineup, junior college transfer Adrian Forbes did it 14 times. His best contributions were on defense. He averaged 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds while playing 16 minutes per contest.
Forbes and 6-4 guard Tony Neysmith will be the only seniors on the roster. Neysmith, whose strength is on defense, started five times and played in 29 games, averaged 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 15.9 minutes of court time per outing.
Going into his second season with the Tigers, Barbee says his job is less hectic, and hopefully, less stressful. "Now things are more stable," he says, adding he has a "much higher comfort level going into year two than it was going into year one with all the unknowns."