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Hoops Report: No cigar

Arkansas 82, Auburn men 79 (OT)

Give the Auburn men some credit. A lot of it, even. Arkansas entered this game as hot as any team in the league, having won back-to-back roadies at Georgia and Ole Miss to take over first in the SEC West. They have Courtney Fortson, a first team All-SEC talent. And they were at home. Of the four games in this “must-win” stretch, this was probably the toughest of the four.

Auburn played like they knew it. They made shots (35 percent from 3, 7-of-11 from the line). They rebounded with gusto (14 offensive boards). They forced the Hog scorers to work for their shots–Fortson, Rotnei Clarke, and Marshawn Powell shot a collective 19-of-45 from the floor and less than 33 percent from deep. If Tay Waller’s toes aren’t on the three-point line on his jumper with a minute to play in regulation … if Frankie Sullivan’s desperation three at the buzzer doesn’t catch just enough back rim … if one more play goes Auburn’s way anywhere in regulation, anywhere in overtime … Auburn comes home with a victory.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Auburn continued their recent trend of fouling first and asking questions later, sending the Hogs to the line 30 times and undoing much of their otherwise-solid defensive work. They turned the ball over 15 times, undoing much of their otherwise-solid offensive work. And so when Waller’s apparent three was a two and Sullivan’s heave bounced away and the breaks that the Tigers had gotten down the stretch against ‘Bama didn’t go their way, they lost.

Last year, we might have said “tough break,” patted them on the back, and looked forward to the next one. This year, the loss drops Auburn to 2-6 in the SEC and 11-12 overall. The Tigers still have four road games remaining, three of them against teams at .500 or better in the league. This week’s home game comes against a suddenly dangerous-looking Georgia team. Unless Auburn both holds serve at home and pulls off a surprise on the road somewhere along the line–neither of which they’ve done yet this season–they will need a major run at the SEC Tournament to avoid missing the postseason entirely.

So, finally, give the Tigers credit–but also acknowledge that their performance in Fayetteville just wasn’t good enough. It’s nice, but it’s not the same as winning.

And so I wonder if this is the game we look back at if Jeff Lebo is let go at the end of the season, the 40 minutes where we see his Auburn tenure in microcosm. Lebo has done many good things for Auburn; he’s cleaned up the worst excesses of the Ellis era, offered the Tiger faithful likable and hard-working teams, given us the thrill of the 2008-2009 ride. But one NIT appearance in six seasons just isn’t good enough.

It’s been nice. But it’s not the same as winning.

Other assorted thoughts:

— Auburn’s inability to have everyone in the lineup shoot well at once has to be driving Lebo straight out of his gourd. The last few games Sullivan’s been mired in a slump while Waller’s carried the team; Sullivan finally woke up to a 6-of-10 performance (4-of-7 from 3, with two of those end-of-the-clock heaves), just in time to watch Waller go 7-of-19. Sigh.

— Likewise, why can Auburn not shoot and take care of the ball in the same game? Against Ole Miss, the Tigers posted an 18-to-5 assist-to-TO ratio but shot in the mid-30s; against the Hogs Auburn shoots in the mid-40s but has 14 assists against 15 turnovers. And so the offense is just about equally efficient (1.02 PPP vs. Rebels, 1.06 vs. Hogs).

South Carolina 61, Auburn women 58; Alabama 55, Auburn 53

Ugh. I don’t even want to talk about it.

I will a little bit because that’s what I do, but … ugh. Losing at home the .500 Gamecocks was one thing; not a good thing, but in this rebuilding year, something that could be dealt with.

But losing to the hapless Crimson Tide–now 2-9 on the SEC year–is a miserable defeat, even coming in Coleman Coliseum. The loss breaks a streak over the Tide going back years, and if I’m not mistaken is Fortner’s first loss to Alabama.

We all knew there weren’t big things in store for this team, not this year, but 6 or 7 league wins and a big upset (or even two) at the SEC tourney seemed doable. Not any more, and especially not if they don’t quit turning the ball over–17 of them against Carolina (if you’d asked me if it was possible for these Tigers to shoot 51 percent from the floor and lose, I’d have told you no way) and 19 against Alabama. With all due respect, it’s a testament to how far behind the league the Tide is that Auburn could turn the ball over that often, shoot a rotten 43 percent inside the arc, go 5-of-freaking-16 from the foul line … and still only lose by 2.

Obviously, two losses in one down year aren’t going to change the overall upwards trajectory of Nell Fortner’s tenure at Auburn. But they do mean it’s just about time to close the book on ’09-’10 and start looking forward to next season. Auburn’s probably got a few more surprises left in them–still the same team that shocked LSU and Georgia and all–but anything really special is probably going to have wait until next year.

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