With 1st year in the books, Barbee, Tigers look to future

Barbee talks the future

Listening to Tony Barbee talk about his team after its 69-51 loss to Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday, you wouldn’t think the Tigers had just wrapped up an 11-20 campaign with a lackluster 18-point loss.

That’s because, while wins are nice, Barbee knew they couldn’t necessarily give the most complete picture of the success of his first season coaching Auburn.

For that, he’d have to look at the three double-digit comeback wins in conference play. Or the fact the Tigers somehow found their way out of the conference basement after losing their first six SEC games and not looking especially promising in them.

Or the disappointment on his players’ faces when they couldn’t pull out one more comeback against Georgia.

Auburn, to the surprise of many, was rarely a pushover in Barbee’s first year.

“I’m proud of the way my kids fought all year long,” Barbee said Thursday. “What could have been a long and difficult year — because wins and the losses can separate or divide a team — and this team has stayed together all season long. And fight, they did all the way to the end.

“So I’m proud of them for that.”

The Tigers, in conference play, were never the biggest, strongest, most talented or most experienced team on the floor.

If 6-foot-10 Rob Chubb was on the bench, Auburn’s only post options were 6-8 Adrian Forbes and 6-9 Ty Armstrong, who was still visibly hobbled after ACL surgery over the summer.

With Frankie Sullivan shelved for the conference season after ACL surgery of his own, the Tigers’ top two scoring threats were Earnest Ross and Kenny Gabriel, who had a combined 140 collegiate points entering this season.

Their point guard was walk-on who Josh Wallace, who was very generously listed as 5-10 and just so happened to finish third in the conference in assists and second in steals.

Auburn managed to surprise everyone with four conference wins. Except, maybe, its coach.

“There weren’t many expectations on this season, but I don’t look at a schedule and see a game that we can’t win. That’s just how I am,” Barbee said. “But at the same time, the main focus for this year was laying the foundation of what this team is going to be like, or this program is going to be like on the floor while I’m coaching it. And that’s a mean, tough, nasty team that doesn’t quit fighting. And I think we embodied that over the course of the season.”

Auburn showed that mentality not only with its epic comebacks, but with the individual improvement the players showed throughout the season.

Ross turned into a scorer that could take over segments of the game, if he pleased. Gabriel found a little bit of the consistency by the end that Barbee had been begging him to show all season.

Chris Denson, who barely sniffed the court during the non-conference schedule, was the Tigers’ third-leading scorer in conference games, netting 7.1 points per game.

He finished his freshman year with a career-high 21 points against Georgia.

“He was one of the least prepared players that I’ve ever coached starting on this level as a freshman,” Barbee said. “He just had no understanding of individual defense, of team defense, of offensive concepts. And until he was ready, I was never going to put him on the floor where he wasn’t going to be successful.

“I give him credit because he didn’t hang his head because he wasn’t playing. He understood what I was saying.”

The good news for Auburn: more help is arriving.

Sullivan will be healthy next year, the Tigers add a trio of talented freshmen — Cedrick McAfee, Bernard Morena and 6-10 Willy Kouassi — and guard Varez Ward (Texas) and swingman Noel Johnson (Clemson) are transfers who could be ready to step right into the lineup.

“We got a lot of good dudes coming in next year, so hopefully we’ll do way better than this,” Denson said. “I know we will, because Coach Barbee and the coaching staff is great and we’ll have great players next year.”

The better news or Auburn: this year’s team gave next year’s squad something to grow on.

“We’ve learned a lot and we’ve proved to a lot of people that we can at least compete with them,” Ross said before the tournament. “We just want to show people that we can compete, play hard.

“And look out for us next year.”

dmorrison@oanow.com | 737-2568

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