If you were under a rock Wednesday night -- or if you've boycotted paying attention to Auburn basketball, which wouldn't be too unreasonable -- you missed the Tigers finding a new way to punch orange-and-blue fans in the stomach. Auburn led No. 2 Florida in Gainesville for nearly the entire game. Then, Auburn basketball did an Auburn basketball thing.
Final score: Florida 71, Auburn 66.
Auburn head coach Tony Barbee has been on the hot seat, at least according to a loud sector of the Auburn fan base, for some time now. As one might imagine, the reaction from #AuburnTwitter after the Florida game wasn't too kind to Barbee. Even your level-headed College and Mag tweeter got in on the Barbee bashing.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, Tony Barbee doesn't have his players prepared to perform late in close games.— College and Magnolia (@CollegeAndMag) February 20, 2014
Obviously, Barbee hasn't garnered much benefit of the doubt. He's in his fourth year leading the program, and the Tigers are just 47-71 since the start of the 2010-11 season, 16-46 in SEC play. After a 9-23 (3-15 in SEC play) season a year ago, Auburn is 12-12 overall this season, 4-9 in league play. And it's not like the Tigers are playing in one of the nation's toughest conferences: There's a real possibility that the SEC will send just two teams to the NCAA Tournament in March.
But wait! What about the eye test?
It's impossible to deny that, despite the record, Auburn has looked much better this season. Chris Denson leads the SEC in scoring, and K.T. Harrell is fourth on that list. The Tigers just lost the latest in a long line of heartbreakers, but they did push the No. 2 team in America to the wall on its home court. In that 0-6 start to conference play this season, four games were close throughout and decided by eight points or fewer. If Auburn had gone 2-2 in those contests, instead of 0-4, the Tigers would be 14-10 with a 6-7 mark against conference opponents. That wouldn't be all that impressive, but it would have to be considered a significant improvement from last season. Despite a ton of roster attrition over the offseason, this year's team appears to be better than last year's.
But wait! We're sick of moral victories!
Here's the problem for Barbee: This team is fairly talented. Denson and Harrell make that point clear with their scoring numbers, and freshman Tahj Shamsid-Deen has shown flashes of brilliance. Allen Payne doesn't get a lot of headlines, but he's reliable. Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Matthew Atewe aren't giving Auburn a dominant inside game, but they're probably overachieving, at least on the defensive end. The Tigers have been competitive in most SEC games, but they haven't been able to finish. That's resulting in a lot of criticism landing at Barbee's feet. The basic argument: The players use their talent/work ethic/good attitudes/scrapiness/whatever to stay in games, and at the end, Barbee doesn't put them in position to make the necessary plays to finish off a win. When Auburn suffers a loss as a result of an incredible mental breakdown, as it did Wednesday, that criticism of Barbee in late-game situations is only amplified.
So, is it time to move on? As previously mentioned, Barbee hasn't really done anything to get the benefit of the doubt, and for the cynical Auburn basketball fan, it's hard to imagine the coach ever leading the Tigers to real success. But, if he does appear to be moving the team in the right direction -- as slow as that movement might be -- should he be given another year. It's not like the Tigers have a glorious history of basketball success. Barbee has been forced to try and build out of a crater, and while he may have actually deepened that hole, most accepted that the rebuilding project would take a considerable amount of time. If he's actually -- finally -- starting to build, is it wise to start all over again with a new coach. And just because Auburn fires Barbee, that doesn't mean the Tigers will automatically hire a winner. There's not a great track record in that department, at least when basketball is concerned.
Was the close loss to Florida an example of how much Auburn has improved, or just another instance of Barbee wasting a great effort from his players? Should Auburn cut its losses and try its luck with a new head coach? Or are the Tigers just now building momentum, and should Barbee be given another chance to build on that? We're asking because we honestly don't know the answers.