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Hoops Report: Lebowatch a go

We're as surprised as you are, Jeff.
We're as surprised as you are, Jeff.

For the last few weeks, I’ve made the argument that despite the home loss to Troy, the missed opportunities against ACC competition, etc., Auburn’s men’s basketball team has actually been improving. Since the early-season meltdown against Central Florida, the Tigers have added Tay Waller to the rotation, gotten great production from Frankie Sullivan, attacked the boards, played great defense in spurts, and even gotten the offense in first gear for stretches. Auburn’s problem hasn’t been doing things the right way; it’s been doing all of them the right way at the same time. I’d assumed that eventually all the pieces would come together and Auburn would be … well, not good, but the kind of dangerous, tough team we saw last year. In going to Tallahassee last Thursday and taking a likely NCAA Tournament-bound Florida St. team down to the final possession despite a 34-to-13 free throw advantage for the home side, the Tigers proved that they have the potential to be that kind of team, the sort of 2008-2009-style group that Auburn fans will be happy to watch and will come out to support.

The flip side of all that “what happens when it all comes together?” potential, though, is the “what happens when it all falls apart?” potential. That’s what we saw at Beard-Eaves yesterday as Auburn somehow lost 107-89 to visiting Sam Houston State, giving the Bearkats their first-ever victory over an SEC team. I thought Auburn was on its way towards plugging all their leaks; instead, every leak the Tigers have opened up, and Jeff Lebo’s boat may have finally sunk for good.

Because this was, truly and verily, a capitulation of epic proportions, particularly on the defensive end. 53.6 percent three-point shooting for SHS. (Guess that Troy thing wasn’t a fluke, huh?) 34 points for forward Gilberto Clavell on–this is unbelievable–14-of-17 shooting. After the foul-a-thon in Tallahassee, 24 more fouls committed and 25 more free throws for Auburn’s opponent. Add it all up: that’s 1.23 points every possession in an up-tempo, high-possession game. Against Sam Houston State. At home. The Bearkats aren’t a bad team–they’ve been one of the stronger programs in the Southland for years and only lost by 10 at Rupp Arena earlier this season–but still. Come on.

What’s especially damning is that Auburn is supposed to be a defense-first team. Undersized, low-post deficient, and erratic with their jump shots (none of which Lebo can change however he tries), these Tigers have to play like last year’s Tigers–lost of ball pressure, lots of steals, no dribble penetration, hand-in-your-face defense on the opponents’ jumpers, then rebound like crazy and get out on the break. With Auburn’s collection of offensive (ahem) talent, they have to play exceptional defense; they’re never, ever going to win a shootout.

They’ve more-or-less taken the “play fast” and “get steals” part to heart, but the rest of it … not even close. What’s funny about yesterday is that while Auburn had a lot of their usual problems on offense–7-for-22 from deep, the starters combining for 12 turnovers and 10 assists, sub-70 percent shooting from the stripe–Auburn shot well enough inside the arc (25-41, 60 percent) that they finished at 1.06 points-per-possession. That’s not great given the competition, but for Auburn, it’s OK. It certainly ought to be enough to win the game. The game that was against Sam Houston State. At home.

Clearly, something went deeply, deeply wrong in the team’s defensive preparation for this game. Coach Lebo, what would you say is at fault here?

“We’re young, we’ve got a lot of new guys, but our attention to detail is not particularly good,” he said. “We went through everything in two days of what they do and we just went out there and looked like we didn’t do anything. I mean, I might as well have not have even watched the tape or had practice for two days. That’s what it looked like out there.”

Ah, I see: you prepared the players just fine, but they didn’t listen. It’s all their responsibility. Gotcha. I’m sure that your public evisceration of them will help ensure they pay closer attention next time.

Ultimately, that’s what this is about: are Auburn’s players paying attention? Lebo’s philosophy for his team is a good one; the scheme fits the talent on hand. But obviously that doesn’t matter a bit if he can’t get them to execute said scheme, and you can’t get any further away from that execution than Auburn got yesterday. It’s not even like Lebo hasn’t had time to instill said schemes, either: this is his fifth season and Auburn starts four seniors, bringing a fifth as the first player off the bench. (It’s the sophomore, by the by, who’s been their best player over the past month-plus.) Perhaps that’s what most damning: Auburn’s not good this year, clearly, no more doubt about that, but they project to be even worse next year.

And so the Lebowatch is on. I think it’s still too soon to pass any final judgments–there’s a lot of season left and Lebo’s improved recruiting with the new arena on the horizon has to be taken account–but the palpable disgust and apathy out there in the Auburn fanbase mean that it’s not too soon to say that Lebo is coaching for his job.

And just in case you need the reminder that it’s not the facilities …

The Auburn women play in the same building, you may recall, and Nell Fortner will send her squad into the Christmas break on a five-game winning streak after crushing one mediocre mid-major and beating a very, very good one. The light seems to have come on for KeKe Carrier: she dominated South and has now scored 17 points or more in 5 of her last 7 outings. If she and Chantel Hilliard can give SEC defenses something to think about inside, Alli Smalley may be able to shoot Auburn into some big wins from outside. At 8-3 but with Liberty the best scalp-to-date, the Lady Tigers will need those big wins to make a run at the Tournament, but at least a winning SEC season will get them into the conversation.

Remember: this is despite the fact that Carrier is Fortner’s only senior and that one sure starter (Reneisha Hobbs) and another likely major contributor (Morgan Jennings) are out for the season with knee injuries.

Certainly, Auburn women’s basketball and Auburn men’s basketball are two different animals. Thanks to Joe Ciampi, hiring a coach of Nell Fortner’s stature and skill is a lot easier for the women’s program and her recruiting job is a lot easier.

But the point from what Fortner’s accomplishing remains: a good coach can win at Auburn. Jeff Lebo has yet to prove he’s that coach.

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