Going into Tuesday night's home game against archrival Alabama, the Auburn men's basketball team had plenty of reasons to be confident that an upset of the Tide was not only possible, but that it would very likely be achieved. Yes, the Tigers entered the game with a less than stellar 3-6 record in SEC play, but three of those six losses were by fewer than 10 points, and in a 15-point loss against top-ranked Kentucky, the Tigers held a lead with 10 minutes remaining. Auburn had struggled to a 1-7 away from Auburn Arena during the 2011-12 season, but Tony Barbee's team was a stellar 12-1 at home, with the one loss coming against the Wildcats. Auburn had dropped its game prior to the contest against Alabama, but the Tigers' offense finally found its rhythm in a 91-88 loss at No. 22 Mississippi State. The Tigers' record didn't show it, but Auburn's recent improved play and excellent home record made an upset of Alabama appear to be a very realistic goal.
Welp, so much for that.
After a strong start, Auburn came up on the short end of a few questionable first-half calls and the Tigers never recovered. Barbee's team played its worst game of the season and ended up suffering an 18-point defeat, Auburn's worst home loss to the Crimson Tide ever. Considering the way the Tigers had been playing, Tuesday's blowout was a tough pill to swallow. Auburn had been doing a lot right going into the Bama game, but the Tigers couldn't do anything right against the Tide. These stats illustrate how poorly Auburn played:
Nine assists, 19 turnovers -- Your offense probably isn't clicking if you only have nine assists in a game. Add in 19 TOs, and you've got yourself a disaster on your hands. Those 19 turnovers led to 24 points for Alabama, compared to just 12 points off turnovers for Auburn.
26 free-throw attempts, 12 free-throws made -- This is the stat that has to be the most infuriating. It's unrealistic to expect a team to be perfect from the line in a game, but leaving 14 free points off the scoreboard is maddening. Frankly, there's no reason a team full of D-1 basketball players should have such trouble shooting foul shots.
Nine bench points, six second-chance points, four fast-break points -- To win basketball games, a team really needs to create opportunities out of nowhere and get production from unexpected contributors. Auburn couldn't score in transition against Alabama. The Tigers couldn't get many offensive rebounds, and when they did, they rarely found a way to get the ball into the basket. No one off the Tigers' bench managed to make an impact on the game. Then again, no Auburn starter other than Frankie Sullivan had much of an impact, either.
18 points in the paint, compared to Alabama's 28 -- Aside from the atrocious free-throw shooting, this had to be the most frustrating part of the game. Auburn was abysmal around the basket all night, flying out of control to the basket and forcing up contested shots that never had a chance of going in. And after a strong defensive start, the Tigers wore down and allowed Bama to out-physical them and take over the game. To put it mildly, Auburn looked very soft against the Crimson Tide's big men.
So, now Auburn sits at 13-11 and 3-7 in conference play. With a win, the Tigers would have only been 4-6 in the SEC, but the confidence gained from beating Alabama at home would have given the Tigers a real shot at winning its remaining games at Auburn Arena and possibly pulling an upset or two on the road. Then, who know what could happen in the SEC Tournament. A possible NIT berth would not be all that far fetched. Instead, the Tigers' confidence has taken a major hit, and the possibility of three-to-four-win SEC campaign and an overall losing record is very real. If Barbee can't pull his team together and get it to play with the confidence and ability shown before the Alabama game, this season could go down the tubes in a hurry. If Auburn is going to get back into winning form, a few things need to happen:
Kenny Gabriel has to make his mark on every game -- KG will be remembered for a long time by Auburn fans for his thunderous dunks, but he has disappeared from games too often during the SEC schedule. He had two blocks against Alabama, but only added eight points and three rebounds. Those numbers are a bit of a wash when you take into account his three turnovers. In the six SEC games in which Auburn has played well -- three wins and three losses by fewer than 10 points -- Gabriel is averaging 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.5 turnovers. In the four SEC games in which the Tigers have not played well -- losses by 10 points or more -- KG's numbers drop off to 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.8 turnovers per game. It's fairly obvious that the better Gabriel plays, the better Auburn plays. Barbee needs to find a way to keep the senior from vanishing during games. With six regular-season games remaining in Gabriel's Auburn career, let's hope that won't be too difficult a task.
CD3 needs to stop hesitating and start knocking down 3s -- Early in the season, Chris Denson was a sharp-shooter from 3-point range. He would step up to the perimeter with confidence and knock down some big shots. Now, Denson hesitates at the 3-point line and often passes up open shots. Denson needs to do whatever it takes to regain the courage to shoot open 3-point attempts. CD3 being a consistent threat from behind the arc would be huge in terms of opening up Auburn's offense.
Auburn ABSOLUTELY MUST do a better job of caring for the ball -- A big reason why Auburn's offense was able to put up 88 points and hang with Mississippi State was because the Tigers only turned the ball over three times against the Bulldogs. Now, expecting any team average three turnovers per game is ridiculous, but expecting Auburn to play smart basketball and not commit unforced errors shouldn't be. Scoring 88 against MSU was the exception, not the rule, and Auburn can't expect to win many high-scoring games. The Tigers need to slow the game down and keep the score as low as possible. With points at a premium, Auburn can't afford to waste opportunities on foolish giveaways.
Sullivan and Varez Ward need to provide consistent scoring production -- When Frankie and V are hot, they are Auburn's most dangerous scorers and capable of putting up 20 points at any moment. When they're cold, Auburn has a hard time putting points on the board. Sullivan and Ward are the biggest offensive threats Auburn has, and they could both play well down the stretch, the Tigers would be a tough team for anyone to beat.
The six regular-season games remaining on Auburn's schedule -- at Ole Miss, vs. Mississippi State, at Florida, vs. Arkansas, at Alabama, vs. LSU -- will determine whether the Tigers take a step forward in Year 2 under Barbee or make little improvement despite a much-improved roster. After the three-point loss at Mississippi State on Feb. 4, the idea of Auburn winning its remaining home games and upsetting Ole Miss and, possibly, Alabama on the road wasn't absurd. Those results would have sent Auburn into the SEC tourney at 19-11 or 18-12 overall and 9-7 or 8-8 in SEC play and almost assured the Tigers a spot in the NIT. Now, it's hard to imagine Auburn winning any games on the road, and the three home contests could easily result in two or three losses. If those results come to fruition, Auburn will end the regular season at 14-16 or 13-17 overall and 4-11 or 3-12 in the SEC. A season like that would halt any momentum Barbee has built up for the program.
Auburn begins this final, all-important stretch Saturday night in Oxford against Ole Miss. Having beaten the Rebels once already, Barbee's players should believe without a doubt that they can do it again. If these Tigers can pick themselves up off the mat after a bloodying and the hands of Tide, expect to see a focused team that finds itself with an opportunity at victory as the clock winds down. If Auburn is mentally defeated after such an embarrassing loss, it won't be a surprise if the game against Ole Miss is out of hand by halftime. The tone for the remainder of the season will be set in Oxford. Can the Tigers can finish strong and show improvement at the end of Barbee's second year? We'll know the answer by the end of Saturday night.