AUBURN – Despite a last-place SEC finish and single-season worst 15 losses in 16 games, Auburn men’s basketball coach Tony Barbee said Monday he has not spoken with athletics director Jay Jacobs about the state of his program.
Jacobs, who has been quiet publicly through arguably Auburn’s worst basketball season in history, sent an email last month pleading for patience with the “Auburn Family.” Yet, Barbee said conversations with his athletics director are merely day-to-day updates on the team’s progress.
“We haven’t had conversations about that,” Barbee said, specifically referencing the state of his program. “(We talk) about where the team is right now, about how we’re going to play against Texas A&M. How do I feel about Texas A&M? What do they got? Those things. What’s next? And that’s this game against Texas A&M.”
As the No. 14 seed, Auburn will open its SEC Tournament at 9 p.m. Wednesday against the 11th-seeded Aggies in Nashville, Tenn. In their only matchup this season, the Tigers lost 65-56 to Texas A&M on Feb. 20 inside Auburn Arena.
Regardless what happens this week, Auburn already has sealed its first last-place SEC finish in Barbee’s three-year tenure. Barbee said he will evaluate his program at season’s end, but some players already have made their assessments.
On Monday, senior guard Frankie Sullivan and junior guard Chris Denson said players have not bought in to Barbee’s “hard coaching” approach.
“People are just not buying into what Coach Barbee is talking about,” Denson said. “I mean, he’s a great coach, and people just aren’t buying into what he’s saying. But I think that all comes with maturity. We’ve got a lot of young guys on the team, so we’re looking to build that up next year.”
Barbee said “I haven’t seen that as an issue” when asked if he agreed with Sullivan and Denson.
Denson said he believes players are committed to the team. He doesn’t expect a mass exodus of transfers this offseason, which has been the norm in Barbee’s first two years.
“Nobody is talking about leaving in the locker room,” Denson said. “Everybody is really excited about what we can do.
“Me being the leader next year when Frankie and Josh (Wallace) leave – and me and Allen Payne and Asauhn (Dixon-Tatum) – we’re trying to take the role of leadership and just mentor the young guys.”
Asked why players are still not buying in this late into the season, Denson said he didn’t know. Without giving names, Sullivan said some younger players have struggled transitioning from being “the man” on their high school teams to a lesser role in Barbee’s system.
“I think that it gets to a lot of players that they’re not used to it,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to say that it’s him taking them down. It’s just that they’re not used to that hard coaching because you come from high school – and be honest with anybody, be honest with yourself – you come from high school, you’re the man. At your high school, you can do whatever you want to do. You can say whatever you want to say, play the minutes you want to play, take the shots you want to take.
“People ... can’t adjust to the fact that they have to build a reputation and not just go off of what they come from in high school. I think that’s hurt a lot of people on our team.”
Whatever conclusion Jacobs comes to at season’s end, Sullivan said Auburn’s apparent philosophical breakdown between Barbee and his players has more to do with the guys on the court.
It’s dependant on players to conform to Barbee’s style, Sullivan said. It doesn’t work the other way.
“What Coach Barbee did at UTEP is the same thing he brought here,” Sullivan said, referring to Barbee’s previous stop where he was named Conference USA Coach of the Year. “They won at UTEP, so obviously his method works. You’ve just got to buy into it.
“Coach K doesn’t do it. He doesn’t change his approach for his kids. When he brings in kids, they come and they buy into it, you’ve got to get guys to come into your program and buy what you’re trying to sell.”