Man, I wish I could tell you that the story of Auburn’s 94-78 win over Alabama St. last night was that Auburn had “bounced back” or found some “redemption” or taken a step forward in any kind of fashion from last Sunday’s debacle against Sam Houston St. … but I’m not going to be the one to tell you that.
Because I don’t think all that much changed for Auburn between Sunday and Tuesday. That’s not to say there weren’t some positives: Brendan Knox was able to stay on the floor and continued to shoot an extremely high percentage; that’s encouraging. I don’t know if their 76 percent night on 34 shots at the charity stripe is repeatable or not–an awful lot of evidence over the past two seasons suggests it isn’t–but maybe it’s baby step forward. Andre Malone, Kenny Gabriel, and Josh Wallace gave Auburn something off the bench; in recent weeks what Auburn’s gotten off the bench has mostly been nothing, so it’s a start.
But when all is said and done, the only thing that really changed for Auburn was the identity of the other team on the court. It doesn’t sound like there ought to be a world of difference between Sam Houston St. and Alabama St., but there is. ASU is a SWAC team, from the cash-strapped league at the very bottom of the D-I barrel, and as of this morning rated 323rd (out of 347) in the Kenpom ratings. The Hornets have lost to Ole Miss by 37, to Belmont by 36, to Tulane by 27, to Arkansas by 25. (Sam Houston, I’ll remind you, put a scare into Kentucky. They’re currently in Kenpom’s top 100.) For ASU to be within 9 points with less than 12 to play is a horrible sign, one just as bad as the surrender on Sunday.
And that’s just the overall scoreline; defensively, it’s even worse. You’ll recall that it was almost exclusively Auburn’s defense that was to blame against Sam Houston. You’d think after that kind of an embarrassment, a team that made its living on defense last year–and has to again this year–would come out with something to prove and lock down one of the worst offensive teams in the country.
Not so much. ASU shot 40 percent from 3, collected 16 offensive rebounds (10 more than Auburn! No excuse for that other than sorry effort, none), and landed five different players in double figures. Put it all together, and if the Hornets hadn’t shot a miserable 12-of-21 from the free throw line, they’d have gone over a point-per-possession.
Again, .99 PPP allowed isn’t all that bad against an average offense. But ASU not only isn’t average, they’re barely even playing the same sport that average is. They rank 341st in points-per-possession, 331st in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency, 343rd in eFG, dead last in two-point FG percentage. The Hornets went to Beard-Eaves and surpassed their season offensive averages by a mile, across the board. Auburn’s defensive response to the Sam Houston St. debacle was, basically, to play the exact same way.
At this point, you have to hope Auburn’s defensive woes are effort-based, because if Lebo’s defense really is as fundamentally broken as these last two games have made it appear, Auburn will stand no shot in league play. (I say that even accounting for the fact that the SEC has become a definitively second-tier basketball conference.) But even if Auburn does decide to get itself back to full-speed once the conference schedule begins, what does that say about Jeff Lebo and his ability to get his charges motivated, even in the wake of an all-time embarrassment like the Sam Houston game?
What it says is that something is very, very wrong with Auburn basketball, is what it says. I hate to be such a downer; I’ll take the Alabama St. win over the Sam Houston loss in a heartbeat, obviously. But quite honestly, Auburn shouldn’t be willing to take either one of these performances.
Which is why I’m not that bothered by the attendance problems. Charles Goldberg took Auburn fans to task this morning for their apathetic support of the men’s basketball team (and simultaneous willingness to criticize Lebo), accusing them of having “a short memory” after last season’s successes.
In a word: Please. The problem isn’t that Auburn fans’ memories are short, it’s that they’re long, long enough to remember that this program has been the very definition of mediocre for the past 20 years. Yes, there have been the brief blips on the radar–the Chris Porter years, the Marquis Daniels experience, last year’s wonderfully gritty bunch–but Auburn fans have learned the hard way that seasons like those are far and away the exceptions rather than the rule. Our default setting has been stuck at “wait-and-see” for a while now, for perfectly good reasons, and anyone expecting one NIT season (on the heels of five seasons spent collecting 13, 14, 12, 17, and 14 wins) to change that is delusional. Like always, Auburn fans waited to see what this 2009-2010 team was going to offer us … and what, exactly, have we seen that’s going to induce us to come out to the same ancient gym four days before Christmas to watch this team play one of the worst teams in the country?
That is not to say that Auburn fans shouldn’t suck it up and support the team, that I don’t wish it wasn’t like this, that I don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for the players who have to walk out onto their home floor and see the rows after rows of empty seats. Clearly, the attendance situation could be better and, in a perfect world, should be better.
But this is not a perfect world and the problem, in the end, is not the fans. Auburn is a football-first school–always has been, always will be–with a crumbling facility and a program with decades of futility behind it. That’s a formula for apathy no matter how you slice it, no matter what school you’re applying it to. Expecting anything different is a waste of time.
Photo by Van Emst.