When five Auburn seniors decided to seek their release with the hiring of a new basketball coach in the spring of 2010, it didn't take a basketball guru to know that new head coach Tony Barbee would have his work cut out for him. At his press conference, Barbee said he had come to help Auburn win championships - to make Auburn a national basketball program again.
And despite the loss of experience and senior leadership, Barbee brought in a new wave of enthusiasm for Auburn basketball. He also brought with him a history of winning and a hatred for losing.
Barbee knows what it's like to win, having played and coached for Kentucky Coach John Calipari. He has a .670 coaching and playing record and has been to the post season 18 of his 19 years as a player or coach. He has averaged 20.5 wins a year as a head coach at UTEP, won a Conference USA Championship, and was named C-USA Coach of the Year in 2010.
Add to that list the fact that Rivals.com has rated him as the number three recruiter in the nation and it's easy to see why he was one of the hottest young coaches in the country when Auburn hired him.
Shortly after coming to the Plains he hit the ground running, putting together an impressive class of recruits which included Huntsville native Josh Langford a 6' 7" guard and the number one ranked player in the state, Luke Cothron a 6' 9" power forward and the number 11 rated player in the nation, and Shawn Kemp,Jr a 6' 10" center and the son of former NBA great Shawn Kemp.
With the opening of the new state of the art Auburn Basketball Arena everything was looking up for the Tigers ... that is till Cothran and Kemp both failed to qualify academically.
Then the injury bug jumped up and bit the Tigers. Both Frankie Sullivan and Ty Armstrong suffered torn ACL's. Sullivan's injury was particularly devastating to a young team already crippled by the lack of senior scholarship players and the failure of star recruits to qualify.
The impact of the loss of Sullivan was never more evident than when he tried to make a come back in December. During Frankie's brief return, the Tigers won four straight games with him back on the court.
The present sub 500 season is not without hope though. In spite of having a deficit in size, depth, talent, and experience; the young Tigers have been exciting to watch and have made great strides in improving the past few weeks.
They pushed SEC West leader Alabama before falling late, took Eastern Division leader Florida to the wire in a 45-40 loss, beat Florida State (a team that beat #1 Duke the next week), and got their first SEC win last Saturday when they defeated South Carolina by 15 points in Columbia.
Coach Barbee has said the Tigers are,
"A major rebuilding project. (But) I don't think we've struggled ... even though it hasn't shown up in wins and losses, in every game we've played this year, we've been the underdog based on talent level. Even though we don't have the biggest, most athletic, most talented team; the kids have played hard in every game with a high level of energy and have given me everything that I am asking for. They have played extremely well."
I do not doubt the sincerity of those words but winning is so entrenched in Barbee that I believe he can't stand having an 8-13 record. He has been quoted as saying, "I hate losing more than I like winning."
Well with the foundation that is being laid this season, coupled with the recruiting of the nation's number three recruiter, it should not be long before Auburn basketball will be a nationally recognized winning program.
The talent and depth is not there yet. But with Barbee's recruiting prowess, his aggressive style of defense, and his dribble drive offense ... it will happen. Make no mistake; Auburn will be a conference and national contender. However, it will take more than one season to realize the dream.
This coach will get the job done. He has too much drive, too much motivation, too much experience, and too much hatred for losing - for anything else to happen. Mark it down. Underline it. Circle it ...
Auburn Basketball will be a national program again!