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It’s time

If Jeff Lebo is retained for another season as head coach of Auburn men’s basketball, I won’t complain, I don’t think. Dismissing him will be costly. Hiring a replacement will be even more costly. A change in the head coaching position will likely produce a series of transfers and recruiting losses that will necessitate another two-year rebuilding process before real improvement is possible. Finding a coach as likable, as principled, as in touch with his players will be difficult. For all of these reasons, I cannot argue that retaining Lebo shouldn’t at least be considered by Jay Jacobs and the Auburn administration.

But it’s my opinion that the best way forward for Auburn men’s basketball is to thank Lebo for his service, buy out his contract, and hire a new head coach. Lebo is a good man, and I’m going to wish him the absolute best of luck whether he’s coaching at Auburn or elsewhere. But we have asked many things of him which he has failed to deliver, things I do not believe have been too much for Auburn to ask.

It is not too much to ask for more than a single NIT bid in six years. We understand that the program was on probation and attrition-scarred when Lebo took the helm, that he has suffered injury luck that could best be described as “terrible,” that he is fighting against decades of losing history and a relic of a home arena. But an NIT bid is a low, low bar to clear, one that requires  little more than keeping the team’s head above water in the SEC and not blowing games to the likes of Southern Miss in 2006-2007, Tulane in 2007-2008, Central Florida and Troy in 2009-2010. Mid-majors of all stripes across the country face just as daunting recruiting obstacles and put together teams that could make the NIT out of the SEC. One postseason berth in six years is not enough.

It is not too much to ask that a team with five seniors not play the worst defense in the SEC. Either tracked per-possession or via Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency numbers, Auburn’s defense resides in the league’s cellar, 12th out of 12. Regardless of the quality of player recruited, regardless of the  size of the five on the floor, SEC-quality players–especially fourth- or fifth-year SEC-quality players–should be able to be taught to move their feet and keep opposing players out of the lane. They should be able to learn when to gamble and when to stay fundamentally sound. They should be able to avoid giving up seven dunks to one player in one game when the season is on the line. It has long been a tenet of Lebo’s tenure that his players give maximum effort at all times, and for the most part, that is a tenet I continue to hold as well. The problem, I believe, is simply Lebo’s failure to coach proper defensive technique and scheme.

It is not too much to ask for more than two winning seasons in six years. Again: this is hardly a difficult hurdle to clear for an SEC team. There is no way a major-college basketball program that takes itself even remotely seriously can find these results acceptable, under almost any circumstances.

It is not too much to ask for Auburn’s senior players to have some understanding of what is a good shot and what isn’t. I understand (and even endorse)  that Lebo’s philosophy with his undersized team is to keep tempo quick, shoot an abnormally high number of threes (despite his lack of shooters), and keep the paint open for dribble-drives. But this can’t possibly mean that after four years, Lebo still wants Dewayne Reed–a career 32 percent three-point shooter–to pull up for a contested three with 15 or more seconds on the shot clock, as he did multiple times last night and has throughout the season. He can’t seriously want our best offensive post player to take two shots, or as third as many as Kenny Gabriel took. He can’t seriously want his team to take 42.7 percent of its shots from behind the arc. But they do. When all was said and done, Auburn’s offense was productive this season, and was last season as well. But remaining this perimeter-oriented without perimeter shooters is no formula for game-to-game consistency. There’s a reason Lebo’s 2008-2009 team managed to lose to Mercer and beat Tennessee in the same season.

It is not too much to ask to recruit one post player who can provide some level of usefulness on both ends of the floor. A large part of Auburn’s defensive problems this season stemmed from the fact that Brendon Knox could not be counted on to anchor the defense, while Johnnie Lett could be counted on to force the offense to play 4-on-5. Lebo had four years’ worth of recruiting to try and solve this problem. He could not.

Most importantly: it is not too much to ask that we feel some kind of excitement about this program.

These should be thrilling times for Auburn basketball; the Auburn Arena is going to become one of the greatest hoops facilities in the country the day it opens, potentially transforming the culture of the program overnight. But if Lebo is kept, is there anything to look forward to other than the arena? The same coach whose tactics have looked so subpar this season. A gutted roster featuring Frankie Sullivan and a host of players who could blossom but who also didn’t give us a whole lot of reasons to think they would. Essentially, another lost year of waiting until the rotation matures in 2011-2012.

I like Jeff Lebo. I like him a lot. But I am tired of waiting. I am tired of not caring. I am tired of excuses*. I am tired of tissue-paper defenses and undisciplined offenses. I am tired of Auburn being completely shut out of league honors in what’s currently a second-tier conference. I see what Tennessee found in Bruce Pearl and what Mississippi St. has in Rick Stansbury and even what Georgia seems to have in Mark Fox, and how can I not want Auburn to at least try to have the same thing?

Certainly, there’s no guarantee that things will get better; John Pelphrey hasn’t done anything for Arkansas that Stan Heath couldn’t have done anyway. But I want Auburn to take that shot anyway. I want the new arena to open up with a sense of possibilities, not a sense of the same-ol’-same-ol’. I want the men’s hoops program to act like a program that wants to be better than it is, not like one that’s all right with mediocrity. I want a coach whose energy and charisma gives us reasons to hope and cheer, instead of one whose generic likability gives us reasons to hope he lands on his feet.

It’s not something I type easily at all, but: I want Jeff Lebo replaced. Sometimes, it’s just time.

*Re: those excuses, the Beav is a semi-legitimate one, but guess what, the Tad Pad is three years and Andy Kennedy–in his third year–will take Ole Miss dancing if they beat Tennessee today. Beave or no Beav, I refuse to believe recruiting to Auburn is more difficult than recruiting to Starkville, or even Vanderbilt given their academic restrictions. The facilities made the job harder, but it hardly made it impossible.

As regards the “lack of administrative support,” the administration is ready to open a new state-of-the-art $93 million arena. But they don’t care about basketball? Right.

And as for the fans, Auburn people have shown time and time again that we will come out in droves for a successful basketball team. Just last year we sold out games for both the women and men, the latter coming in what would be a highly nondescript season for any of the upper-tier SEC teams. Yes, there should be greater unconditional support, yes, attendance shouldn’t flag as badly as it does for the nonconference schedule or when it’s clear the season is in the tank. But that doesn’t mean the right coach couldn’t have packed Beard-Eaves multiple times a season.

Photo by Van Emst.

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