It's all about baby steps for Tony Barbee in his second year as Auburn basketball coach. At least that's what the SEC media believes. On Monday, Auburn was picked to finish 10th in the SEC this upcoming season. That's two spots higher than a year ago when the Tigers were picked dead last.
Before you get down, remember Auburn's football team was also picked tenth in football this season. Something tells me they are going to finish much better.
As expected, Kentucky is the overwhelming favorite to win the conference, followed by Vanderbilt and Florida. Because of the overall weakness of the SEC West (although conference officials won't admit it), the SEC is moving to an open format this season, doing away with divisional standings.
While schools will continue to play teams in their traditional divisions twice, when it comes to standings, everyone will be together. If all goes as planned this will help the Eastern Division significantly come SEC Tournament time.
Considering the condition of the SEC East in football, why aren't we doing the same in that sport? Who wants to watch a school from the SEC West crush South Carolina for the second year in a row?
But I digress...
Junior Forward Kenny Gabriel says depth will be the difference this season.
"We have a lot of experience coming back, and we have a lot more bodies that what we had last year," says Gabriel. "We can go 10 to 12 deep this year. Everybody is willing to do whatever it takes to win."
Another key will be the return of junior guard Frankie Sullivan. When he went down with injury early in the year last season, Auburn not only lost its star, it lost its leader. Sullivan says he's seen a big difference in preparation this off-season and believes that will help once SEC play begins in January.
"Everyone on the team has worked and prepared hard," says Sullivan. "Last year, some people were looking at me to be the guy to come in and lift the team off the boat and when I went out, some people were not prepared for it. This year, everyone is on top of their game.
"Everyone has been in the gym 24-7 and working out developing as players. It is going to be a great year for us. I think our defense is going to be on top because everyone is competing for a starting spot and everyone wants to play in the ball game. Coach (Barbee) says that if you cannot play defense then you cannot play in the game."
The biggest news in the off-season has been the addition of some much needed talent. Sullivan likes what he sees so far.
"They are great," Sullivan said. "Starting with Willy (Kouassi), he is a great shot blocker and he is going to help us out. I think he is going to end up being the leading shot blocker probably in the country because there is nothing he cannot go get. You see him in practice rejecting all of the people trying to dunk on him. It is good for him to come out with that kind of confidence, and it will help him out a lot during a game.
"Cedrick McAfee is a great scorer, gritty guy and a hard-nosed player. We needed a guy like that to come in who is not afraid of anything and who wants to start and play. He is one of those guys who does not want to wait his turn and wants to come in and take a starting spot, and that is great for us.
"Bernard (Morena) is a great defensive player. He is ready to show everyone that he can compete in the SEC as one of the better defensive guys. That leaves me with Varez (Ward). We all know his credentials coming from Texas. He is a great guy coming in and an all-around great point guard. It is going to be a real battle between him andfor the one spot."
Auburn opens the preseason on November 1st when it welcomes Paine College to the Auburn Arena. The regular season begins on November 11th at home against McNeese State.