Rally Cry: Tigers peaking as SEC Tournament begins

Tigers peeking at the right time? Lets hope so!

Auburn’s players know the drill if they miss a layup, break down on defense, don’t box out, commit a turnover, force a shot or mess up in most any way during the course of play.

Check out and have a seat on the bench.

Coach Barbee would like a word with you.

“If I make a mistake and I see somebody coming to get me, I know why I’m coming out of the game,” forward Kenny Gabriel said. “It’s not a mystery.”

Tony Barbee has used a fiery disposition, a hard-nosed approach to the game — and yes, a quick hook — to whip his exceedingly green Tigers team into shape just in time for the SEC Tournament.

Auburn (11-19, 4-12 SEC), which scored 6 points in its first 20 minutes of conference play this season, goes into today’s first round SEC Tournament matchup against Georgia (20-10, 9-7) riding its first winning streak of the conference season, both wins coming after the Tigers trailed by double digits in the second half.

“Some teams might have peaked two weeks ago, a month ago,” Barbee said. “I think we’re starting to peak right now in terms of how we’re playing offensively, defensively, and that can be scary for a lot of teams.”

Consider this: Auburn is one of only four teams — along with No. 12 Florida, No. 15 Kentucky and Mississippi State — to enter the SEC Tournament on a winning streak.

Wildcats coach John Calipari, who mentored Barbee at Massachusetts and Memphis, has another one for you.

“How about this one? They won as many road games in the league (two) as we have,” Calipari said. “You want to talk to any coach about what he’s done with that team, to keep them into every game they’ve played, they’ve had a chance. To be down 20 and come back and win games or have a chance to win, that’s what coaching is.

“I just think he’s done wonders.”

The Tigers have taken on their coach’s traits and started putting them into practice on the floor.

Barbee knew his team would have trouble scoring, so he preached defense.

He knew, with the Tigers’ talent level and lack of experience, they’d have trouble sticking with the majority of SEC teams, so he preached never letting up.

Even if they’re down by 15, like they were against LSU. Or 19, like they were against Mississippi State. Or 20, like they were against Ole Miss.

“He’s been staying on us, but at the same time, we know he’s in our corner,” guard Josh Wallace said. “He’s going to get on us, but that’s just because he knows what we can do and expects the best from us. Him and the coaching staff, them believing in us has been great. I love him.”

Even if it’s tough love, like the time Wallace, a 26.3 percent 3-point shooter, missed a 3-pointer with 3:52 to go against Ole Miss last Wednesday, right after the Tigers had turned a 20-point deficit into a 2-point lead.

Barbee didn’t even wait for Wallace to get to the bench, giving his point guard an earful about his shot selection on the court as the teams broke for a media timeout.

“He always tells the truth. He doesn’t shoot you no crap,” Gabriel said. “He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. He’s going to flat out tell you what you need to hear to become a better player.”

He’s got a team that was unanimously chosen to finish in the SEC West basement at the beginning of the season in the five-spot, with a first-round matchup against a Georgia team it took to overtime on the road Feb. 5.

He’s got a team that was a punchline and punching bag throughout much of the year believing it can still turn some heads this season before the promised land of “next year.”

Many, including Calipari, Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl and Georgia’s Mark Fox, give Barbee the credit for that.

But Barbee shifts the compliments elsewhere.

“They’ve given me everything they’ve got, done everything I’ve asked all year long,” Barbee said of his players. “These guys have done a great job establishing what I want to establish: the mental toughness, the physical toughness of how I want to play, the never-give-up, never-die attitude.”

dmorrison@oanow.com | 737-2568

Auburn (11-19, 4-12) vs. Georgia (20-10, 9-7)
When:  Noon

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Radio/TV: WKKR (97.7 FM)/SEC Network (Channel 8 or 12.2 Digital)

Projected Starters, Auburn: F Allen Payne, 6-6, Fr. (5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.9 spg); F Kenny Gabriel, 6-8, Jr. (10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg); F Adrian Forbes, 6-8, Jr. (3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.7 bpg); G Josh Wallace, 5-10, So. (5.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.9 apg); G Earnest Ross, 6-5, So. (13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.2 apg)

Projected Starters, Georgia: F Travis Leslie, 6-4, Jr. (14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg); F Trey Thompkins, 6-10, Jr. (15.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 apg); F Jeremy Price, 6-8, Sr. (9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.8 bpg); G Dustin Ware, 5-11, Jr. (8.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.6 apg); G Gerald Robinson, 6-1, Jr. (12.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.9 apg)

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