Basketball is back, and things look much differently on the Plains than they did just a few months ago. Jeff Lebo was let go after six seasons, and Tony Barbee was hired from UTEP. A brand new, state-of-the-art arena has been opened. Five productive seniors have now moved on.
Barbee's success under John Calipari and his subsequent success in Conference USA with UTEP as a head coach sold Jay Jacobs on the idea that he was the right man for the job. Barbee is also known as a top recruiter.
Barbee immediately went to work on the recruiting trail, securing commitments from top players Josh Langford, Luke Cothron, and Shawn Kemp Jr. The only problem is that two of those three failed to qualify. Only Langford is on this year's roster.
Barbee is left with a depleted roster. In addition to losing five seniors (Knox, Lett, Hargrove, Reed, and Waller), injuries have plagued the Tigers. Star player Frankie Sullivan tore his ACL, then potential inside starter Ty Armstrong did the same thing.
So this season should be a struggle for Coach Barbee. His aggressive style of defense and dribble drive offense should keep Auburn in many games, and they may be able to surprise some folks. But the talent and depth just are not there yet.
Sophomore guards Josh Wallace and Earnest Ross and Junior forward Kenny Gabriel will have to establish themselves as team leaders. They provide some of the little SEC experience on the roster.
Andre Malone, Tony Neysmith, and Rob Chubb have been in the program for over a year and will have opportunities to step up as well.
Then, there are the talented newcomers. Even without Kemp and Cothron, this freshman class will be expected to contribute early and often. Huntsville Lee High School product Josh Langford was one of the top prep players in Alabama. He'll play a major role on this year's team.
Chris Denson and Varez Ward, a transfer from Texas, will see playing time this season if healthy at point guard. Allen Payne and Adrian Forbes will add some needed depth on the interior.
The Tigers play their first of two exhibition games tonight against West Alabama. They play Columbus State on Monday, before opening the season against UNC-Asheville on November 12.
The key to the season is how the current players buy into Barbee's style of play. If the team plays together and plays hard, they may be able to stay above .500 and fight for an NIT bid. Either way, this season is about laying the foundation and luring more top recruits to the Plains in the future.
This is an extremely young team, with no scholarship seniors on the roster. So, expect Auburn to begin making runs in the SEC soon. It might just take a year or two.
Projected starting line up:
PG—Josh Wallace 5'10", 160 lbs. SO Pensacola, FL
SG—Earnest Ross 6'5", 215 lbs. SO Cary, NC
SF—Kenny Gabriel 6'8", 190 lbs. JR Charlotte, NC
PF—Allen Payne 6'5", 205 lbs. FR Cincinnati, OH
C—Rob Chubb 6'10", 222 lbs. SO Peachtree City, GA
Projected Record (my prediction):
Overall: 17-13 (7-9 SEC)