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Hoops Report: All’s well that begins well

Varez Ward, jammin' on the one.

The 2011-2012 Auburn basketball team has been in the national spotlight just once this young season, in an 81-59 loss to Seton Hall during the SEC/Big East Challenge on Dec. 2. For many of expat Auburn fans, the loss—Auburn’s first road test of the season and the only time the Tigers have been nationally televised this year—had to have been an all too familiar scene: a slow start, sloppy ball control, and a lack of truly dependable scoring ability ruled the night. For those fans who have only had the chance to see the Tigers in that one contest on ESPNU, it must be discouraging to think that this team could be marred by the familiar problems (lack of leadership, scoring responsibility, and length and athleticism) that have haunted the program in years past, that the Tigers could be in for another long campaign of frustration.

But those of us who have been fortunate enough to see the Tigers in all of their other games so far this season, we know that that just won’t be the case.

The Tigers are 7-1 on the season, undefeated at home, and with nine wins in Auburn Arena if you count two preseason exhibition games (which haven’t always been guarantees in recent years). So far this season Auburn has played with discipline and excitement, with new pieces fitting in just where the coaching staff needed them to fit in. The Tigers have seemingly found their identity inside the defensive brand of basketball that head coach Tony Barbee promotes.

Some distant fans may not have been watching when that philosophy earned them a 52-40 victory over South Florida, and avenged that SEC/Big East Challenge loss to Seton Hall by downing Big East competition at home just a game later.

The team that Tony Barbee has built for 2011-2012 is far different from the Tigers team that struggled through last season.

The most obvious change is an added injection of talent, from both new faces and old friends. Texas transfer point guard Varez Ward, who sat out last season waiting out a knee injury (and NCAA transfer rules), has become all that Auburn fans hoped for. Ward immediately gives Auburn more scoring opportunities as soon as he steps on the floor, averaging 11.1 points and 4.3 assists per game so far this season. He has seamlessly found his place on this team, giving the Tigers what they have been lacking in years past— a true point guard that can distribute and make his teammates better on the offensive end, while being able to pick up the ball and score himself when needed, like in his 20-point performance against Nicholl’s State and by scoring 17 against North Florida.

Auburn’s back-court also received a major upgrade in talent and in leadership with the return of veteran Frankie Sullivan, who took a medical-redshirt after missing almost all of last season with an ACL tear. Despite returning from injury, Sullivan is back and playing better than ever, tapping the potential Auburn fans have seen from the 2008 Alabama Mr. Basketball runner-up since he arrived on the Plains. It’s no surprise that Sullivan is Auburn’s leading scorer with 13.1 points-per-game, but just as valuable to the Tigers as his dependable scoring is his leadership, both with his hard-nosed play on the defensive end and in the feel he has for his teammates when the basketball is in his hand.

But apart from new additions, the same core group of players from 2010-2011 have made strides and have begun to fulfill the potential that Auburn fans saw from them down the stretch last season. Kenny Gabriel has come into his senior season along with Sullivan as one of the team’s most well-rounded and best overall players on both ends of the court, putting together a nice stat line with 10.9 points/game, 8.8 rebounds/game, and 3.0 blocks/game. Center Rob Chubb bulked up over the summer, adding 20 pounds this offseason, and has found his groove in different matchups throughout the season, as recently as in Monday’s tilt against Florida A&M where he scored 21 points.

Meanwhile, Auburn continues to add players to the shuffle. Josh Langford has made his return and added some length and athleticism to the team over the last two games, after he and Tony Neysmith returned from suspension before the North Florida game. 6-foot-6 guard and Clemson transfer Noel Johnson is eligible to play, but has missed each of his chances so far to make it onto the court with injury.

Johnson could make his Auburn debut in Honolulu, Hawaii, of all places, early Friday morning. Auburn could certainly use him, and all of the depth they can find on the back end of the bench, as it competes in three games in three days in the Diamond Head Classic tournament this week. It could finally be another chance for Auburn fans across the country to see the Tigers on national television again this holiday season.

Auburn begins the tournament against the home standing Hawaii Rainbow Warriors late Thursday night / early Friday morning, with tipoff at midnight Central time on ESPNU. And with the way Auburn has been playing and with the tournament draw they’ve been given, Tiger fans may just have reason to be excited and to stay up late. If Auburn can get past Hawaii, they will face either Long Beach State or a depleted Xavier team, still reeling with four players suspended after a brawl during its game with Cincinatti, meaning that Auburn could actually find themselves in a position to make a run in actual tournament basketball.

But regardless of the boost that bringing home some victories from Hawaii could provide, or the opportunity Auburn has once again on the national stage, the true take-away from this tournament could be the experience the Tigers could gain, and the opportunity that they have to show some consistency against stout competition in their second real road trip of the season. Auburn could easily find themselves facing off against two NCAA tournament teams in two days on the back end of this tournament, which would prove invaluable as they prepare for the SEC slate in January.

For now, all these new Auburn Tigers have to do is take their show on the road—and show those fans across the country, and maybe a few folks in Honolulu, just what they’ve been missing.

Photo via Todd Van Emst.

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