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Hoops Report, the regular season post-mortem (Men’s edition)

OK, so, first, an apology for WBE’s disappearance over the past week.Took a trip to Denver to meet up with some friends and, as always with my time away, I believed I’d have enough time to get some blogging done on the side. As always, I was all kinds of wrong. Sorry. I’ll try to catch up as quick as I can.

Thank you.

What’s already happened? That road win never came.

Back on February 11th I laid out a blueprint for an Auburn NIT bid: sweep the remaining home games, win one road game, and win two SEC tournament games. The first part of the blueprint went according to plan. The third part we’ll get to in a moment. They had four different chances at fulfilling the  second part. After last Saturday’s loss to Alabama, though, they finished the season having whiffed on all four.

The result: Auburn has to win two games in Nashville just to avoid a losing season, and in all probability have to win three just to receive NIT consideration. Frankly, the blueprint was generous; when you’re a team with an RPI in the 140s, a losing conference record while playing in a wasteland of a division, and with black eyes like losses to Troy and Central Florida the most notable part of your nonconference performance, you don’t have a margin for error. You have none.

And so you can’t really get outshot from the floor by 20 freaking percentage points and have your senior point guard hand out two assists to four turnovers while shooting 5-of-19 from the floor and give your senior forward and best frontcourt player three shots in 30 minutes (not that Hargrove and his 1-to-5 A/TO ratio was anything special) and lose by 12 after trailing by a point at the half. Can’t do it.

(Sidenote: If you had to boil down this Auburn team’s failures to one thing, wouldn’t it be “second-half defense”? Over and over and over again, Auburn’s been fine-to-superb through 20 minutes, and OK offensively through 40, only to utterly collapse on the defensive end over the final 20. Again and again and again. Is it conditioning? Better halftime adjustments by opposing coaches? Some weird mental fragility that only manifests itself defensively? In any case, I can’t say it reflects well on the head coach for Auburn’s splits ot be so lopsided.)

What’s particularly unfortunate about the Alabama loss was that it can’t help but overshadow the midweek win over Mississippi St. Auburn’s secretly become an offense-dominated team over the course of the conference season, and here were the Tigers at their apex: even going against a team featuing the NCAA’s all-time leading shot-blocker, they scored an eye-popping 1.31 points-per-possession and hit better than 50 percent from the field. They only missed 28 shots and rebounded 13 of them … meaning that nearly half the time Auburn missed, they got the ball back anyway. In terms of PPP, it was the second-best offensive performance by any team in SEC play this year, and maybe the best considering that State is a much better defensive team than Florida (who gave up 1.38 PPP to Vandy back on Jan. 9). It was Senior Night, and the final game at Beard-Eaves, so give those seniors credit: they played like they weren’t ready to leave the old barn behind just yet.

But that’s been the problem all along, hasn’t it? For this team, for all of Jeff Lebo’s tenure, hell, for virtually the entire history of Auburn basketball: a stellar performance here, a solid effort there, none of it ever quite enough to outweigh the failures. They had to win a road game somewhere down the stretch. They never did.

And yet, when you look at …

What’s happening next? … you realize there’s some hope after all. Check the SEC bracket: Auburn’s draw after ‘Bama upset South Carolina on the road last week and (fortunately) bumped the Tigers to the West 5th seed is as follows:

1. Florida. A tougher game on paper by a mile and a half than Auburn’s potential second-round opponent, the Gators will be fighting for their NCAA lives and beat Auburn 78-70 in the teams’ only meeting this year. But that game came in Gainesville and Billy Donovan’s record of SEC Tournament success without the legendary Oh-Fours is slim indeed. We’ll preview this game in loads more detail later in the week, but for now, suffice it to say this is a game Auburn can win.

2. Mississippi St. Uh, yeah, after taking the Bulldogs to overtime in Starkville (and losing after a series of blown calls, it has to be noted) and leading wire-to-wire in Auburn, it’s safe to say the Tigers would go into this game with some confidence.

3. Arkansas, Georgia, or Vandy. The hometown ‘Dores would be a tough nut to crack, but a) Auburn did take a big lead on Vandy in Memorial Gym, where this hypothetical game wouldn’t be played (thank goodness) b) there’s no guarantee Vandy would get past whichever of the Dawgs or Hogs wins the opening-round matchup. Both teams are as erratic and dangerous (or moreso) than Auburn.

No, the odds are not good that Auburn wins three games in a row and surges to a winning season and possible NIT bid. In fact, the odds are that the Gators eliminate Auburn and end the Tigers’ season–and, yeah, maybe the Jeff Lebo era–at the first hurdle. But there’s a chance. At this point, there’s nothing left to lose, no expectations still to place. Things tip-off Thursday. Hopefully they’ll be fun.

If not, then what comes afterwards will probably be no fun at all.

Photo by Van Emst.

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