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Hoops Report: Trouble in paradise

"The Beach" versus "The Blunder."

Just when things were looking up for the Auburn basketball team in the Diamond Head Classic, the Tigers set for themselves a new series of low standards for the season against Long Beach State in the tournament semifinals.

Perhaps the best part of Auburn’s victory over Hawaii in the tournament opener two nights ago was the way the Tigers were able to trudge through adversity when not playing their best and still find a way to win. Against Long Beach State, however, Auburn once again fell victim to one of their same, familiar self-implosions.

Frankie Sullivan’s superhuman effort was enough to keep the Tigers from being run out of the building for the majority of the game, but it wasn’t enough to keep the score competitive when the 49ers made their close-out run down the stretch. Sullivan alone scored 22 points, while the rest of the team combined to score just 21, as Auburn fell 64-43.

Other than Sullivan, Auburn was a combined 7-of-41 from the field on the night. An Adrian Forbes tip-in was the only non-Sullivan field goal of the first half.

That’s not to say that games like last night’s don’t happen. Kenny Gabriel rolled his ankle early in the contest and wasn’t the same when he returned. Rob Chubb found himself in foul trouble early, and eventually fouled out of the game. And, sometimes, shots just don’t fall.

But Auburn is starting to develop an ugly habit of getting into foul trouble, and for the second straight night Rob Chubb, Adrian Forbes, and Kenny Gabriel all finished with four or more fouls. And for the second straight night, Auburn was on the short end of a huge discrepancy in free throw shooting. The Tigers attempted just six free throws compared to Long Beach State’s 25, just a night after earning just 11 attempts to Hawaii’s 23.

Meanwhile, Auburn finds themselves nearing the end of non-conference play without any truly dependable scoring outside of Frankie Sullivan. Kenny Gabriel will surely find his way out of the funk that he’s been in over the last three games, but Auburn could certainly be helped by that happening sooner rather than later. Meanwhile Varez Ward, who at one time accounted for a huge chunk of Auburn’s points by either scoring himself or distributing the basketball, hasn’t had a 5-assist game since starting the season with four (consecutively).

Tony Barbee continues to mix and match his personnel, too, but any new combinations certainly weren’t of any use against Long Beach State. Allen Payne hasn’t seen the floor at all since logging just nine minutes against South Florida, even after Kenny Gabriel went down with injury in the first half last night. Josh Wallace, also, entered the game for only three minutes, in favor of Tony Neysmith, who made his season debut in the second half after returning from suspension.

Josh Langford, also returning from the same suspension, made his first start of the year. Noel Johnson made his Auburn debut last night and worked his way into the flow of the things on the court after being limited by NCAA transfer rules and a hand injury. And freshman Cedric McAfee ended up playing 12 minutes, by far the most time he’s had all season, as Barbee tinkered his lineup in favor of either the prospect of gaining experience or on-setting fatigue from the Hawaii game the night before.

It isn’t that Auburn fans should be upset about the Tigers losing to a very talented and heavily favored Long Beach State team. What’s troubling is the way they did it. They were nearly run out of the arena in the same way they fell to Seton Hall earlier in the year. Shots weren’t falling then for Auburn, either, and when breaks weren’t going the Tigers’ way, there wasn’t much they could do but fold.

What Auburn has to do before conference play rolls around in January is find some consistency—and perhaps more importantly, find someone dependable other than Frankie Sullivan that can take some responsibility in scoring the basketball on the offensive end.

The good news for Auburn is that everything won’t go wrong for the Tigers every single night. In games where one of the best all-around players on the team doesn’t go down with injury just minutes into the contest, and in games where not every single one of their bigs is in foul trouble early and often, and in games where the Tigers actually get a lucky bounce or two, Auburn will be able to play within their confines and will have the athletic ability and the pieces to be able to play up to almost anyone on their schedule.

But in those games where not everything goes right for the Tigers, Auburn will have to find something to default back to and lean on, and at least give themselves a chance to compete, instead of getting blown out by 20 by every quality opponent they come across. And in that, Auburn will find the takeaway it needs to bring home from this loss.

It’s not the end of the world for these Auburn Tigers; they still have one more game to play in Hawaii, and perhaps the most important one of the series on the tournament’s final day in their third-place game against Tony Barbee’s former team.

Auburn has Christmas Eve off, but is right back in action Christmas Day against UTEP at 6:30 p.m. CST on ESPN2.

With a win in the consolation game, Auburn could officially finish as the bronze medalists in the Diamond Head Classic, and could just as importantly return home with a 2-1 record in the tournament and rightfully consider their trip to Hawaii a big success. Win against UTEP, and Auburn could have yet another solid non-conference victory under its belt, and could once again earn valuable experience against quality competition as December comes to a close. What Auburn has to do now is put the Long Beach State loss behind them, and re-focus their attention to UTEP… and to not letting another one slip away from them so easily.

Photo via.

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