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Plainslinks looks into the abyss

A true holiday tradition. Being the stuck-up intellectual Scottish indie band-listening sort, I quit liking Valentine’s Day right around the time I left elementary school and could no longer spend a month deciphering whether Girl A’s Alvin and the Chipmunks “I Like you!” valentine meant I had a better shot with her than Girl B’s Strawberry Shortcake “You’re so sweet!” valentine.*

However, there’s always one huge reason to look forward to Feb. 14: the arrival of another batch of valentines from The Auburner. We’ve been promised a few late addition to this year’s crop, but there’s already several highlights:

Nice as that is, the Phillip Lolley entry remains my personal favorite. Check ’em out.

Ahoy, offseason. With even the final, whisper-soft aftershocks of Signing Day behind us but spring camp still only a glint on the horizon, we’ve entered the true offseason for Auburn football. Last year, this was where yours truly started really hammering out the Auburn hoops posts as both the men and women had their best seasons in years. This spring … not so much.

That’s left us with the following responses from Auburn’s trusty beat writers:

Andy Bitter is debating whether or not Frank Thomas (and Bert Blyleven, and Tim Raines … you can always tell the FJM readers) belongs in the hall of fame.

— Charles Goldberg is announcing the inaugural class indicated into–onto?–Auburn’s new Baseball Wall of Fame.

— Jay Tate is on furlough.

–Both of Evan Woodbery‘s posts this week have been newsworthy, but there’s also only been two of them.

You get the point. It’s slow. And save for spring camp and hopefully some big baseball developments over the next several weeks, it’s going to stay that way. But we’ll get through it together, you and I.

Besides, there is baseball. Unfortunately, the news this week in advance of this weekend’s opening series against Southeast Missouri St. hasn’t been good:

Casey McElroy will miss the start of the 2010 baseball season after learning he has fractured a finger on his right hand during a preseason practice, Auburn head baseball coach John Pawlowski announced on Wednesday.

McElroy started 56 games at short for Auburn last season, the only infielder to start every game last year …

No timetable has been set for his return.

I could try and take an ill-informed guess as to the impact of McElroy’s injury (and centerfielder Trent Mummey’s sprained ankle,) but PPL’s of course already done it ten times better than I could, so go there.

Speaking of PPL, Kevin’s also got a comprehensive preview of the SEMO series available. He’s optimistic about Auburn’s season overall, but unfortunately we can’t say the same for the SEC coaches: they’ve pegged Auburn fifth in the SEC West.

Other stories. The other newsbits from the Auburn beat:

— Auburn’s softball team couldn’t do much with the two Pac-10 powers they faced at their season-opening tournament out west (losing both by a combined 17-2 score), but rallied against Texas Tech and two Midwestern teams to leave the tourney sitting above .500 at 3-2.

— Kudos to Bitter for waiting around on a Mel Kiper teleconference and getting the head draftnik’s opinion on Auburn’s three pro prospects. The verdict: Coleman, Tate, and McFadden all get drafted, but all three on the second day and only Coleman in a round earlier than the fourth. Of course, Powers and Marks weren’t supposed to go anywhere near where they went last year, so we’ll see.

— The SEC swimming and diving championships started today. The Auburn men are looking for their 14th consecutive SEC title and as best I can tell, are favored to bring it home. One word regarding that brand of dominance: Damn.

— Women’s hoop commitment Courtney Strain is a Sports Illustrated “Face in the Crowd“. Sweet.

Hoops talkin’. With the ax now hanging precipitously over Jeff Lebo’s office door, it’s not surprising that Auburn folk are taking stock of the program and of its current coach’s tenure. Phillip Marshall says Lebo’s been too upstanding for his own good:

Talk to people in the game about Lebo and you’ll always hear two things: He’s a masterful coach on the floor. And he absolutely will not cheat.

Lord knows, in a sport darkened by summer league coaches with their hands out and shoe companies buying influence by throwing cash around like Monopoly money, it must be tempting to go over the edge, to do what so many others do and push the envelope.

Lebo, despite roadblocks that he didn’t build, has steadfastly refused to do that. There’s no question that stance has made building a consistent winner at a place where it’s always been hard even harder.

Marshall concludes by saying “there’s a lot to be said for that,” and there is, but we’re all aware there’s even more to be said for not losing 7 of your first 10 SEC games in your sixth year on the job.

Which is why Jay Coulter thinks Lebo is done. He’s got his eyes cast on a larger question:

It’s real easy to place all the blame on the sixth year coach. But we all know better. It runs much deeper. There’s not a more apathetic fan base in America than Auburn’s when it comes to basketball. That sounds funny considering the University is spending $100 million on a new arena for a sport that’s nothing more than a diversion between the end of bowl season and spring football practice. It hardly seems fair to place all the blame on Lebo.

Auburn officials are gambling big that a new arena will bring new enthusiasm and success to a program that has truthfully, never been a whole lot. In the short term, it almost certainly will work.  Auburn fans will flock to check out the new arena. Next season will break all attendance records, even with the new arena being smaller than Beard-Eaves. Hiring the right person will also add to the renewed excitement.

Then what?

Does building a state-of-the-art facility and hiring a new coach cure all the ills of a program that has floundered for a century? As one person asked on a message board this weekend, would hiring Urban Meyer at Vanderbilt change its fortunes? If only it were that easy.

Jay’s right that we’re talking about a lot of history that has to be overcome for Auburn basketball to become something other than an easy punching bag for the Scarbinskys of the world. But I also think you have to answer the question as to whether Auburn men’s basketball can become a competitive program with an emphatic yes.

Fans have been painfully apathetic in the lean years, yes, but they’ve also come out in droves for Auburn’s few winners. Auburn hoops is not Vandy football; the right coach can make a world of difference. (Just look at what Bruce Pearl has done for Tennessee, whose men’s program owned barely any more prestige or history than Auburn’s when he came board.) And Auburn doesn’t even have to rely on just a new coach to salvage the program; they’ve got the arena, too, and though I know I shouldn’t let my hopes get away from me based on nothing but artist’s renderings and construction photos, I think it’s going to be the best gym outside of Lexington in the SEC. It’s going to be a game-changer.

So while I know it feels right now like Auburn’s never going to be good in hoops ever again, I don’t think it’s quite all that bad.

Etc. Out of the blAUgosphere: Beaver runs down some of the names to watch for the class of 2011; WarBlogle offers a video of Gene Chizik pressing the flesh in Montgomery … You might want to sit down for this, but: Tubby appears to be backing off his promise to keep the Leach “Air Raid” intact. I know. I can’t believe it either.

*The right answer, of course, was always neither Girl A nor Girl B but shuddering Realization C: I didn’t have a shot with anyone. So it goes for future They Might Be Giants obsessives in rural Alabama.

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