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Hoops Report: Last stand

Ole Miss 84, Auburn men 74

I thought Auburn might draw a decent crowd at Beard-Eaves last night. Crazy-sounding, I know, but the Rebels came in ranked 18th in the country, for a nationally-televised (such as “nationally televised” is when it means ESPNU) pivotal game, on a Thursday night when I can’t imagine that there’s that much going on on the Plains. The Auburn-centric areas of Twitter were imploring fans to get out to the game; you may have noticed we here at TWER decided to go with a liveblog. This game felt like maybe not a big big deal, but at least a medium-sized deal, deal enough that you wouldn’t be able to hear every individual student heckle sent in Andy Kennedy’s direction.

Two minutes in I plainly heard something about Kennedy going bald, and I knew that that decent crowd had no materialized. But two minutes in, I also knew why, because Auburn’s offense to that point had consisted of a series of passes around the perimeter followed by contested Tay Waller jumpers. They’d happened to go in, but made or not jumpshots with a hand in the face don’t make for good–or, more importantly where the attendance was concerned, attractive–basketball.

It took the better part of 30 minutes, but eventually, of course, the jumpers stopped falling, Auburn’s ever-wretched defense caught up with them, and the Rebels raced out to a double-digit victory. It was inevitable.

And so, I think, are the attendance problems. As we covered in the liveblog last night: watching this team just isn’t fun. On paper, watching an athletic team that’s committed to forcing turnovers, running the fast break, and taking the first decent shot available (before the opponent’s halfcourt sets can put Auburn’s size disadvantage to use) should be exciting, right? Right. Too bad that in practice, it’s just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing: empty gambles on defense, ill-advised perimeter shots on offense, a general feeling that this team is never in control of what it’s doing. Who wants to come to Beard-Eaves and watch a glorified pickup game? Especially when the other team’s players–be they Ole Miss’s or Sam Houston State’s–are usually better at playing that style than Auburn’s are anyways?

And so I wonder if Jeff Lebo’s departure is also inevitable. I’m not ready to go that far quite yet; it’s not crazy to think Auburn could sweep these next three (vs. ‘Bama, at Arkansas, vs. Georgia), pick up a few more home wins down the stretch, pull an upset or two at the league tourney, and squeeze their way into the NIT. It’s really not.

But at some point the program and its head coach reach what I think of as the Phil Fulmer Point of No Return. A lot of wags have chastised Mike Hamilton for punting a coach with as much success as Big Phil when he did, but the atmosphere surrounding the Vol football team had turned so poisonous and negative Hamilton didn’t really have a choice.

Auburn’s fans unfortunately don’t care enough about the hoops team–and, to be fair, generally like Lebo too much as a guy, I think–to rain down the boos and turn things nasty. But from an administrative standpoint, the all-engulfing apathy surrounding this team might be even worse; at least fans booing the coach have paid for a ticket. Auburn hasn’t reached the point yet where that apathy is so palpable that Lebo has to be forced out regardless of his results, not when the new arena might be enough to correct the damage for him …

… but last night, you could see that point approaching. Lebo has to make watching Auburn enjoyable again, now, and the only way to do that is win.

Points from the box score:

— As has been the case for Auburn throughout the season, the Tigers finally got one guy hot only to see another collapse. The former in this case was Waller, the latter Frankie Sullivan, who suffered through a miserable 2-of-12 performance. (Dewayne Reed finished 4-for-15, but that of course is standard operating procedure by now.) You could call Auburn’s inability to get everybody on the same page at the same time bad luck, but at this point it’s smarter to call it a function of the offense: when all you take are low-percentage shots that sometimes drop and sometimes don’t, you’re going to be subject to wild fluctuations like we’ve seen from Sullivan and Waller (and from Auburn as a whole from half to half).

— As we’ve been saying for weeks, though, the offense may be ugly to look at … but it isn’t the problem. Ole Miss scored 1.21 points-per-possession last night, which, so you know, is gawdawful; on the raw numbers side, Auburn allowed 80 or more points for the 5th time in 6 games. If I plug BBState and tell you (if you didn’t know) that it’s a must-subscribe for anyone with an interest in college basketball, maybe Kyle won’t mind my sharing this with you:

That’s a graph (or as hoopheads call it, an “aerial”) plotting the SEC’s teams against their points-per-possession scored and allowed in conference play. (The axes are set at 1.00.) Offense reads left to right, defense bottom to top. So as you can see, through seven games Auburn’s a little better offensively than Arkansas and even Miss. St. and Carolina (and way better offensively than LSU or ‘Bama), but are better defensively than … no one. They’re rock-bottom. It’s not even close.

Frankly, this is on Lebo: if he can’t ever turn Dewayne Reed into a good shooter or Tay Waller into a fearless driver to the basket, OK. And he is working with a marked absence of height. But this team just shouldn’t be this bad at playing defense. They just shouldn’t.

Auburn’s played a difficult schedule, to be sure. But to this point, LSU’s the only team that’s even in Auburn’s ballpark in terms of statistical failure.

Tennessee 85, Auburn women 56

If Pat Summitt’s got an ax to grind with you–and after Auburn’s twin beatdowns of the Lady Vols last year, you wouldn’t blame her if she did–you’re probably due for a hiding sooner rather than later. And so Auburn got theirs in Thompson-Boling last night. Alli Smalley scored 21 and kept Auburn in it early with a series of 3’s, but that’s about all the good that can be said about this game. That, and that it only counts for one loss in the record book, and that Auburn will have the chance to–as Fortner puts it–get right back on the horse on Sunday.

Photo by Van Emst.

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