The 2008-2009 SEC basketball season is about halfway over. The men's basketball team has had an up-and-down season, while the Auburn women have put together one of the most successful starts in school history. Here's a look back at both seasons so far.
Coach Jeff Lebo entered this season with real optimism that this would be the year Auburn men's basketball might reach postseason play. After rushing out to a 4-1 start, Auburn lost three straight non-conference games to Dayton, Northern Iowa, and Xavier.
At 4-4, the Tigers' season was not looking promising. But Coach Lebo and his team rattled off seven straight wins to close out the non-conference season. An 11-4 start kept the goal of the postseason in reach.
But conference play, as has been the case for the last few years, brought the Tigers back down to earth. They opened with losses at South Carolina and at home against Florida before beating Alabama for the fourth time in their last five tries. The momentum from a dominating win over Alabama was quickly halted at Kentucky, as the Tigers lost at Rupp Arena.
The Tigers then went to Arkansas and gave the Razorbacks their worst SEC loss in the history of Bud Walton Arena. Back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi left the Tigers reeling, but one of the biggest wins in the Jeff Lebo era, a 78-77 win against Tennessee this past Saturday, has brought renewed hope to the Tigers' SEC chances.
Auburn has back-to-back home games against Arkansas and Mississippi State on Wednesday and Saturday, followed by trips to Athens and Baton Rouge. The Tigers have shown potential this season. Free throw shooting has plagued them, however. They have shot below 50 percent from the line in four of their losses, a truly amazing statistic for a Division I school.
However, big wins at Arkansas and against Tennessee have shown their potential in a wide open SEC. Auburn is much better at holding onto the basketball this year, and their defense has been suffocating at times. A variety of zone defenses and presses has confused opponents, especially in non-conference play.
Having a productive interior presence in Vot Barber has helped the Tigers both in half-court offense and on the glass. When the Tigers out-rebound their opponents, they are 12-2. When they get out-rebounded, they are 2-7. The rebounding battle almost always tells the tale with this team.
Korvotney Barber has been the most consistent player by far. He can almost guarantee a double-double every time he takes the floor. Rasheem Barrett has gotten hot as of late, averaging 28 points per game in the Tigers' last two home games. The other senior, Quantez Robertson, has given his usual 100 percent, but has struggled from the free throw line in crucial situations against SEC opponents.
Newcomers Tay Waller and Frankie Sullivan have provided quality play from the beginning of the season. Johnnie Lett and Brendan Knox have improved their games. Dewayne Reed is scoring more, but still must improve his decision-making and ball handling in the open court. Lucas Hargrove has become a more consistent and complete player as well.
To make any sort of postseason tournament, the Tigers must at least get to 8-8 in the SEC by the end of the season. That would require a 5-3 finish, which will be tough with four games remaining against SEC west leaders LSU and Mississippi State. It's possible, but not likely. Maybe the Tennessee win will lead to more big wins, but these players and coaches must show the ability to take one game at a time and continue to improve.
The Auburn women's basketball team has been by far the most successful team on the Plains this year. The Lady Tigers raced out to a 20-0 start, the second best in school history. After a loss at Georgia, they rebounded to win three straight SEC games. With five games remaining in the regular season, they sit in first place in the SEC standings. Head coach Nell Fortner, with the help of three four-year senior starters, has put the Tigers among the nation's elite. They remain in the top five in the country.
Senior point guard Whitney Boddie leads the nation in assists. Not only is she an excellent passer, but she flawlessly runs the fast break, gets the team into their sets, and is a great finisher around the bucket. Senior forward Sherell Hobbs from Huntsville has a successful mid-range game and is also an excellent finisher. Senior Trevesha Jackson does great work on the glass and provides effective interior defense. Sophomore Alli Smalley provides a lethal three point threat.
But senior forward Dewanna Bonner is the player that makes the entire team tick. A National Player of the Year Candidate, Bonner is averaging 21 points per game (24.7 PPG in SEC play) and 8.6 rebounds per game. She can hit the three, is an excellent passer, can drive and finish at the rim, and is the unquestioned leader.
These Auburn Tigers have the potential to make it to the Final Four in early April. Before that, the SEC regular season title and the SEC tournament title are still very much up for grabs. How they handle the pressure of being among the nation's elite will determine how successful this team is this year. No matter the outcome at the end of this season, Fortner has established a winning attitude that should last for years to come, once again making basketball relevant on the Plains.