The second year of a new coach's regime at any given school can be an odd time.
If things go according to plan, the team should show improvement from Year 1, with players having fully grasped a new system and adapted to a new coaching style. But unless the school we're talking about is steeped in tradition and just in need of a new man running the show -- see John Calipari at Kentucky -- Year 2 for a head coach can be a bit frustrating. The noticeable improvement might be there, but it's still a transitional time, especially for a head coach, like Tony Barbee at Auburn, that is trying to build a program from the ground up.
Year 2 will likely feature some losses that feel undeserved and a record that leaves something -- or a lot of things -- to be desired. In that case, one shouldn't simply look at the team's wins and losses. There is a need to look deeper to fine out just how successful the season was and if the team is headed down the right path into the future.
For Auburn this year, the final record certainly left plenty to be desired. The Tigers finished 15-16 overall and 5-11 in SEC play. That marked the third consecutive year that Auburn finished with a record below .500, double-digit losses in conference play and no postseason. There haven't been too many periods of basketball success on the Plains, but that's a rough stretch, even for Auburn's standards. Does Barbee have the Tigers on the right track? Will Auburn be competing with the SEC's elite in the near future? Will Auburn fans soon be looking to March as a month to celebrate basketball, as opposed to the time to shift into baseball and football spring practice modes? Only time will tell, but we can get an idea by looking closely at Auburn in 2011-12 and comparing the Tigers to Barbee's first season in 2010-11.
2010-11: 11-20 (4-12 SEC); 2011-12: 15-16 (5-11 SEC)
While Auburn only improved by one game in its SEC schedule over the last two seasons, the overall record showed a nice four-game improvement. Looking at how the Tigers achieved those records this year, compared to last year, makes them a little nicer. Auburn had a big problem with dropping games to teams it had no business losing to. The Tigers lost to UNC-Asheville, Samford, Campbell, Jacksonville and Presbyterian in the non-conference slate. Barbee knew his team would face difficulties in his first season at the helm, so he wisely scheduled a laughably soft non-conference schedule. Well, the Tigers still managed to compile just a 7-7 record going into SEC play. And it wasn't like those five embarrassing losses were to teams that dominated their respective conferences. Those teams compiled a 77-82 record (42-55 in their respective conferences) and only UNC-Asheville -- as a 16-seed -- made the NCAA Tournament. There was the surprise win -- which, looking back, was absolutely stupefying -- over a Florida State team that would advance to the Sweet 16 the following March, but it's needless to say that the first couple months of the Tony Barbee Era did not go as planned.
The Tigers did a much better job of winning games against beatable competition in this year's non-conference slate. Auburn was 10-4, with two of the four losses coming against teams that are getting set to take part in March Madness and a third against a No. 1-seed in the upcoming NIT. Picking up wins against cupcakes isn't anything to write home about, but it's much better than losing to those teams.
Auburn opened last season's SEC play at 0-6 and was 2-12 before closing out the year with wins over Ole Miss and LSU. Picking up the season-ending win at LSU was big, considering Auburn had six points at halftime of their first matchup, which was the SEC opener. Even with two wins to close out the regular season, it was tough to be happy with much since Auburn experienced SEC losing streaks of six and four games and was outscored by an average of 13 points (70-57) in its 12 losses.
The SEC record didn't improve by much this season, but the Tigers certainly appeared to be a much better team to anyone paying attention. For starters, Auburn did a much better job of holding serve at home going 5-3 in SEC games at Auburn Arena, compared to 2-6 last season. The home loss to Arkansas, after blowing a 17-point lead, really hurt, but losing games to NCAA-bound Kentucky and Alabama on their home court was nothing for the Tigers to be ashamed of. Aside from the 30-point blowout at Vanderbilt to open SEC play, Auburn did a little bit better of a job staying competitive in losses this year, averaging a 10-point defeat (67-57) in those 10 games.
No, Auburn's record wasn't all that much better this season in comparison to last, but the kinds of teams that Auburn beat and the way the Tigers played in most of their losses show that the 2011-12 record is better than it appears.
2010-11: 62 points per game; 2011-12: 63 points per game
Unfortunately, Barbee's squad didn't show much improvement on the offensive end of the court. Auburn scored more than 65 or more points 14 times this year, but the Tigers counteracted those performances by scoring 55 or fewer points 11 times. Those numbers aren't much different from last season -- 13 games with more than 65 points, nine games with 55 or fewer points. In fact, there were more games this year where the offense totally failed to show up. That's not a good sign. In addition to Auburn struggling on offense many times this year, the Tigers were downright turrible from the free-thrown line. Auburn shot 65 percent for the year, which really isn't acceptable. Multiple losses came down to the fact that Barbee's team just couldn't knock anything down from the charity stripe. That has to change going forward.
Auburn dealt with key injuries and suspensions late in the year, and that certainly didn't help the scoring production. Had the Tigers been at full strength for the entire year, it's safe to say the offensive numbers would have looked a little better, but there still wouldn't have been enough improvement to be all that pleased. Putting the ball in the basket is definitely the area where Barbee's team needs to make the biggest strides this offseason.
2010-11: 66 points per game; 2011-12: 64 points per game
The overall numbers aren't that much different, but Auburn showed marked improvement over the last two seasons in terms of locking opponents down and not letting them run away in individual games. Last season, the Tigers held opposing teams to 60 points or fewer eight times and allowed them to score 70 points or more 11 times. This year, Auburn held its opponents to 60 or fewer 11 times and allowed them to score 70 or more only six times. That obviously shows that Barbee is instilling a tenacious defensive mindset in his players, and it has led to them playing at a high level in more games and having breakdowns in fewer games. If Auburn can continue that type of improvement next year, the Tigers could become a very tough team to score on. With an offense that might still be trying to catch its stride, a solid defense is a must to have a successful season.
WHAT AUBURN GAINS, WHAT THE TIGERS LOSE
Incoming freshmen: PG/SG Jordan Price, SF Shaq Johnson, PF Jordan Granger, C Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, PG Brian Greene; Outgoing seniors: SF/PF Kenny Gabriel, PF Adrian Forbes, PG/SG Tony Neysmith, SF/PF Jake Drum
It might be the understatement of the year saying that Auburn is really going to miss Gabriel. KG played above the rim with high energy and was able to knock down 3s and put away electrifying dunks. Gabriel averaged 2.3 blocks per game, good for second in the SEC, and recorded Auburn's first-ever triple-double on Jan. 2 against Bethune-Cookman. It won't be easy replacing that type of presence. Forbes' overall averages from this season don't stand out much, but he really improved his game as the season went along and became a key cog in the machine, especially on defense. He had a knack for drawing charges to kill opponents' momentum and did a fine job of helping out in the post. Neysmith's and Drum's efforts at Auburn were appreciated, but losing those two won't have as much of an impact.
As far as what Auburn is picking up in recruiting, it's been a while since the Tigers have had as much success as they have had in this cycle. Price, Johnson, Granger and Tatum are all signed, and Greene is a recent verbal commit. Johnson and Granger led their high schools to state titles, and Price's team lost in the state finals. All three have been able to show dominance at the high school level, and if anyone can come close to replacing KG's above the rim play, it'll be Johnson. With a first name like "Shaq," it's no wonder that he can jump out of the gym. This recent video from one of Johnson's playoff games shows just how well he can throw it down. That's a pretty good KG impression, no? Price has the ability to score in bunches, and Granger and Dixon-Tatum -- 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-11, respectively -- bring size to the low post that Auburn loses in Gabriel and Forbes. At just 210 pounds, which is light for a guy standing at 6-foot-11, Dixon-Tatum will need to hit the weight room and pack on the muscle. With a still improving Rob Chubb entering his senior year, if Dixon-Tatum, along with future teammate Willie Kouassi (6-10, 219), can do that, Auburn will have a solid foundation for its inside game on offense and defense.
All in all, Barbee's 2012-13 team will easily be his most gifted at Auburn, which will mark the third straight year that Barbee has improved the talent level. Coaching and heart go a long way, but to really become a competitive program, solid talent is necessary. It appears that Barbee is stockpiling it at Auburn.
SO, WHAT'S IN STORE FOR AUBURN'S FUTURE?
As depressing as it was to go back and look through stats from the dreadful 2010-11 season and the better but still pretty rough 2011-12 season, it's nice to see that Barbee does have his team pointed in the right direction. One thing, no matter the score, that no one could say this year is that Auburn wasn't playing hard and putting out a full effort. (Unless you're talking about allegations against Varez Ward, but that's a whole 'nother story.) It hasn't fully translated on offense yet, but the defense has gotten better and better thanks to a commitment to never taking a possession off. With the improved raw skill coming in next season, we should begin to see steps forward in the offensive game, as well. If Barbee can get his guys to become decent free-throw shooters, he'll really be on to something.
Barring some unforeseen, unfortunate incident, Auburn's final record next season should make a major improvement over this season's. A .500 record in SEC play and a berth in the NIT should not be out of the question. If Barbee keeps the team on course after that, Auburn should be an NCAA Tournament team in 2013-14. Considering the improvements he's already made in the program, anything else will be a disappointment.