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Hoops Report: The missing pieces

Trapped, and looking for a timeout.

On the night of January 10th, 2011, a travel-weary Auburn basketball squad sat huddled around a hotel room television in snowy Lexington, Kentucky, watching their school’s football team win the BCS National Championship.

They celebrated the victory — as we all did that fateful night — but one could only imagine what some of those players might have felt had they later taken a moment to quietly think to themselves, and compare the football team’s season to their own.

It’s an amazing comparison, really. The contrast is stark. All the lucky breaks and fortunate bounces seemed to go Auburn’s way on the football field. This Auburn basketball season has inversely been marred with downtrodden luck and abysmal misfortune.

If the 2010-2011 Auburn football Tigers were the team of destiny, then the ’10-’11 hoops squad is the team of affliction.

It started long before the season even did, when expected starter Ty Armstrong and team leader — and only returning starter — Frankie Sullivan were both shelved for the season with ACL injuries.

As the season began the young Tigers — with no returning starters, with the only senior on the team being a walk-on — gnawed their way to whatever wins they could get in the non-conference slate, while learning to gel with each other and with their new coach, Tony Barbee. At times they looked like they were developing, but all the while it was clear that they were short a missing piece. The foundation was there, as the freshmen trio of Langford, Payne, and Denson began working their way into the lineup, and as Earnest Ross and Kenny Gabriel emerged as Auburn’s main scorers, but there was always something missing to tie it all up.

Auburn was getting just one piece away from turning into the team they wanted to be this season. But, as luck would have it, they’d start losing pieces instead. Over Christmas break, Auburn’s then-second leading scorer Andre Malone left the team, and decided to transfer out.

Meanwhile, the man who could have replaced Malone and been that missing piece for Auburn, Varez Ward, the highly — highly — touted transfer from Texas, was looking to January and the beginning of conference play for the NCAA to clear him for a hardship transfer, allowing him to play immediately this season. That time has come and gone, and, as Auburn’s luck goes, he won’t be playing until next season.

But midway through December, Frankie Sullivan galvanized the team with a surprise return to the court, sparking something within his teammates that got them on the right track again. Hobbled by a bulky knee brace he still managed to score 8.2 a game, but his greatest contribution lied within the leadership and confidence that he brought to the court.

With Frankie starting, Auburn ripped off four straight wins to end non-conference play, including a huge upset win over Florida State, 65-60, that had Auburn Arena rocking, and Auburn basketball making noise. Finally, it seemed, the team was complete and ready to move forward.

However, just as the victory over Florida State was the highest climax of the season to date, in the very next game, in the very same building a few days later, everything fell back apart.

On January 8th, Auburn hosted LSU. Frankie Sullivan went out for warm-ups and shoot-around, but couldn’t go. Days later, the team announced that his knee had been re-injured, and that he’ll be sitting for the rest of the year and applying for a medical redshirt. That night, the team was missing its leader, but that was just the beginning. Their band, their cheerleaders, their mascot, and even their radio announcers were all missing, all on the other side of the country tending to the needs of the football team. That night, in front of a bizarre and sickly atmosphere in Auburn Arena, the Tigers were lost on the court without those missing pieces, scoring just 6 points in the first half en route to a 62-55 loss.

But perhaps the lowest, absolute rock-bottom point of the season was back in that snowed-in hotel in Lexington. The team left the morning after the LSU game, to avoid the frozen storm sweeping the southeast, and spent a frigid weekend in Kentucky.

And on the 10th they looked on as, for a moment, their school, their classmates, and their fans forgot all about them in favor of Auburn’s most royal sport.

The next day they were blasted by Kentucky, 78-54.

Tonight in the Auburn Arena, the Tigers return home for the first time since then. Tonight they’ll try again to find the missing piece that they need to pull the season together. Perhaps tonight they’ll look inwardly and amongst themselves for that something, because it’s become clear that no one else is going to help them. And perhaps tonight, hopefully, they’ll make their own luck.

Auburn (7-10) hosts Florida (13-4) at 6pm CT, broadcasted nationally on ESPN.

Photo via.

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