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Hoops Report: Jeff Lebo, stayin’ alive

Ah, ah, ah, ah stayin' aliiiiiiiiiiiiive ...

Auburn men 92, Arkansas 83

By this point in this slog of a season, it’s hard to say how much the Auburn men really won by downing the Hogs last Saturday. It’s more of a matter of what they didn’t lose.

Because, as we know, Auburn’s margin of error for home losses is precisely zero. Entering last weekend they had three dates at the Beav remaining* and had to win all three to have any prayer of postseason basketball. One of those is behind them. But there’s still two more big steps (and a third on the road somewhere) to go, and in the big picture that matters more than the one already completed. The proverbial dance on the edge of the knife will continue for both Auburn and Lebo.

Speaking of Lebo, since there’s not much else to say there, let’s try answer this question left by regular commenter (and blogger) J.D.:

Jerry –

Do you have any win-loss borders for Jeff Lebo’s future? In other words…

If he only wins 1 or 2 more this season, he’s out. If he wins 4 of the last 5 and 1 in the SEC tournament, he stays. If he wins 3 more, it’s a gray area, etc.

What would you say?

I would say … well, I think … I’d say … man, I’ll be honest: I don’t know.

That’s part of why I haven’t addressed the ever-fluid “Should he stay or should he go?” question regarding Lebo. I don’t have a good answer for it. (The other part is that I’m not particularly comfortable talking about firing a standing Auburn coach; until the season’s good and over, you run the risk of looking silly.) The comforting thing is that I don’t think any Auburn fan does. Ask five of us about Lebo’s job security and you’ll probably get five different answers: that he was as good as fired back when he lost to Sam Houston St. and Troy, that he’s gone as soon as he clinches another losing SEC season, that he needs a big finish to the regular season and a big SEC tournament, that he can save himself by nudging over .500 overall even without an NIT bid, that since Auburn doesn’t care about basketball he’s safe no matter what he does.

My thoughts start with this: Jay Jacobs surely doesn’t want to fire Lebo. Firing him means paying him a fat buyout … giving up on the North Carolina arena-opening blockbuster … watching the current roster and incoming recruiting class collapse in a wave of transfers and decommitments … going through the public wringer of a coaching search just a year after the Tubby-Chizik transition … and finally paying the new guy his own new fat contract. Add in that Lebo is a good guy with a clean program whose players play hard for him–the kind of coach who’d give Auburn a program they’d be deservedly proud of if he’d ever just win–and I think it’s fair to say Jacobs is only going to dismiss Lebo as a last resort, only if the program’s forward momentum is so stalled at season’s end that Jacobs feels he has no choice.

So … how many wins does Lebo need to legitimately give Jacobs the option of keeping him? Only Jacobs really knows for sure. But the guess here–and it’s one I don’t think most Auburn fans will really want to hear–is that anything other than the embarrassment of a losing season will be enough for him to stay. After three losing seasons in the first four of his tenure, two straight non-losing campaigns does represent progress. Glacial, largest-scale-possible progress, but progress. And I think that’ll be enough for Jacobs.

So the official answer: three regular season wins, or two regular season and two SEC tournament wins. Either one means .500 at worst. Would I be able to live with that? I suppose so. There are such tremendous costs to replacing Lebo that I won’t complain–much–if he sticks around for another make-or-break year.

But would I be happy with it? No. For me, it’s Lebo’s sixth year. For me, it’s NIT or bust. But I’m not the AD.

Back to a few points from the Arkansas game:

— So that’s what it looks like when all of Auburn’s shooters are on at once. 92 points! 1.22 points-per-possession! You might want to sit down for this: 61 percent shooting from the field. When Dewayne Reed hits 5-of-7 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the line (and Luke Hargrove’s okey-doke 4-of-9 represents your worst performance of the night), you know you’re living right. Adjusted for competition, this was easily the Auburn offense’s best outing in SEC play.

Unfortunately, it’s probably a fluke. But if Auburn can retain even a little bit of this heat going forward, it’ll bode very, very well.

— And get this: Auburn managed all of that while turning the ball over 19 times! I love what Frankie Sullivan brings to this team as much as the next guy, but he can’t just shoot and play defense; a one-assist-to-three-turnover performance without a single rebound in 37 minutes won’t work when, say, Tay Waller isn’t shooting 70 percent on his threes.

— How tight is the talent level in the SEC West? Auburn’s played three games against the two co-leaders, Miss. St. and Arkansas, and gone 1-2 with the two defeats coming in overtime on the road. (You might also point to this as a sign of how depleted the talent level in the SEC West is. Four different East teams would be leading the West … and that’s with the West teams getting two shots rather than one at horrid LSU.)

Auburn women 50, Mississippi St. 36

Aaaaaand just when you think it’s safe to write off the Auburn women, they go on the road to hold a potential NCAA team with an 8-5 SEC record to fully half their scoring average, never trailing in the second half. Given the quality of Auburn’s upset wins this season–at LSU, vs. Georgia, now in Starkville–it’s a real shame they haven’t been able to pair them with wins over punching bags like Alabama and Arkansas. It probably wouldn’t have made a big difference in their postseason chances … but the end of the season wouldn’t be academic, either.

Shout-outs here to All Smalley for her 4-of-8 shooting from 3 and 17 points, Morgan Toles for her 6-to-3 assist-to-TO ratio, and, again, the entire roster for holding the Bulldogs to less than 20 percent 3-point shooting and less than 30 percent shooting for the game.

*Ever! Still weird to say.

Photo by Van Emst.

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