Men: Hard row to hoe.
Let’s get to the good news first: Tay Waller finally returned from his quad injury in last night’s 87-52 road win at Alabama A&M and played exactly the way Auburn fans have to hope he plays (well, minus the 5 turnovers). 3-for-4 from deep, 5-for-7 overall, 13 points, all in just 17 minutes. Auburn’s already shown that no one else is going to hit the three-ball consistently enough to keep the floor spaced, so that Waller is not only back on the court but might already have his stroke back is terrific news.
Because over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen what Auburn is going to be without Waller, and the results haven’t been pretty. That early road loss at what looks to me like an underrated Missouri St. team I could live with, but the wire-to-wire blowout loss on a neutral court at the hands of Central Florida (who followed that up with a 27-point loss to the same Niagara team Auburn defeated in the season opener) in response? The last-second 60-58 loss to an N.C. State team that’s expected to occupy the ACC basement as the Tigers shoot 5-of-15–5-of-15!!!–from the free throw stripe? Oof.
The bottom line is that even after thumping Alabama A&M and High Point to get back over .500, that’s the kind of three-game losing streak that NCAA Tournament teams just don’t generally suffer. With only one more shot (at Florida St.) at accomplishing anything worthwhile before the SEC schedule kicks in, Auburn is already well behind the Tourney eight-ball and will once again need a huge SEC season just to work themselves into the bubble discussion. This season might not be NCAAs or bust for Jeff Lebo, but he’d better hope it’s not, because right now the needle is inching closer to “bust.”
That’s not to say, however, that the addition of Waller might not result in some big things for Auburn once the calendar flips, because there’s some solid building blocks to build on here, like …
Lucas Hargrove. The senior’s gone off for 39 points and 20 rebounds the last two games, and even more impressively has done it on just 22 shots. (He’s hit 16 of them.) Auburn will need more of the same going forward and might need even more from Hargrove on the glass–defensive rebounding was a major, major problem in the N.C. State game–but it’s a start.
The defense. It’s not consistent just yet, or even close–Central Florida averaged a whopping 1.11 points-per-possession–but Auburn’s putting it together in spurts, holding N.C. State to just 26 percent shooting from 3 and 33 percent overall. (The Wolfpack still managed .94 points-per-possession thanks to the rebounding victories I mentioned, but FG defense is the better indicator going forward.) Clamping down on High Point and AAMU isn’t anything to get too excited about, but opposing PPP marks of .7 and .68 is still the kind of thing you want to see.
The 1.05 given up to IUPUI was much less encouraging; that was the very rare game Auburn won on the offensive end, and they won it largely thanks to …
Frankie Sullivan. After a dreadful start to the season, the light seems to be coming on for Auburn’s sophomore guard: he hit for 20 points on just 10 shots in the aforementioned win over the Jaguars, then nearly won the N.C. State game singlehandedly, accounting for 12 of Auburn’s 58 on 6-of-11 three-point shooting. Sullivan also hit 27 consecutive free throws to start the season, setting a new Auburn record; he’s the only thing keeping the Tigers’ 226th-ranked FT shooting even partly afloat.
If Sullivan can keep anything like this up and Waller returns to full strength, Auburn’s three-guard lineup should cause some real headaches for opponents.
Of course, for every positive, there’s also a flurry of negatives. DeWayne Reed is seriously struggling: he’s shooting 37 percent for the season, bottoming out in a 2-for-10 performance vs. AAMU, and is currently sporting a 26-to-25 assist-to-turnover ratio for the year. Auburn’s got to have more from their senior point guard; I mean, he’s the senior point guard. The non-Hargrove sections of the frontcourt have had their moments (mostly via freshman Earnest Ross and the occasional solid outing from center Brendan Knox) but are still mostly as anonymous as expected offensively, and have had some truly terrible nights rebounding the basketball. (Auburn’s recovered only 49.2 percent of all missed shots, the 262nd-best mark in the country to date.) And because we are talking about the Auburn men’s basketball team here, there’s been a major injury, this one to promising swingman Kenny Gabriel.
So, yeah, I’m not sure what to tell you. If Waller’s OK there’s still hope for a good season, for some big moments in Beard-Eaves’ swansong, for Lebo to enter 2010-2011 on relatively stable footing. But already, with that hideous three-losses-in-four-games stretch in the books and Reed flailing, a repeat of the successes of ’08-’09 seem awful unlikely as we sit here today. What that might mean for Lebo, we’ll have to just wait and see.
Women: Steady as she goes
The Lady Tigers are 5-3 after KeKe Carrier went off for 28 and 13 in a 76-63 win over North Carolina A&T last night. To date the season has pretty much played out as you might expect for Nell Fortner’s inexperienced bunch: they haven’t slipped up against any of the lesser lights on the schedule, but they also don’t appear to have the firepower to stay with the nation’s upper-echelon teams. Temple routed Auburn by 14 up in Philly, Texas A&M came away from Beard-Eaves with a 20-point victory, and No. 12 Florida St. pulled away for an 82-67 win in Tallahassee Nov. 27.
But hey, the very fact that the ‘Noles had to pull away–after Auburn led by as many as 9 in the first half–was a sign of progress. Freshman Nicolle Thomas scored 27 that game and has emerged as Auburn’s second scoring (and three-point shooting) option alongside Alli Smalley. If Carrier can learn how to stay out of foul trouble and provide some semblance of a presence in the post, Auburn should at least stay competitive in what pretty clearly looks like a rebuilding season for Fortner and Co.
Photo by Van Emst.