You won’t find Auburn basketball coach Tony Barbee’s name on any coach of the year awards from last season, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t among the nation’s best. To put it bluntly, Barbee inherited a scratch team that had no business competing in the SEC. Putting together 11 wins from that squad was every bit as impressive as what Gene Chizik is accomplishing on the football field this season.
Heading into year two, Barbee expects much more.
“Last year, it wasn’t about wins and losses,” said Barbee. “It was about establishing the culture around this program. When you saw my team play, we were very unselfish, and we worked hard on the defensive side of the ball.
“The increase in the talent level that we have is significant. The talent of the returning players has gotten extremely better through the individual skills program and the weight-training program. Guys that needed to put on weight did and guys that needed to lose weight did. We’re excited about the new players, namely the transfers, in Noel Johnson and Varez Ward.”
With higher expectations come more marquee matchups. Unlike last season, Barbee has put together a schedule that will bring more attention to the program. That starts with the Big East-SEC Challenge and is followed by a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic.
During the stretch of both tournaments Auburn could likely face Seton Hall, South Florida, Xavier, Kansas State, Clemson and UTEP among others. It’s a schedule that will put the team on the road through the Christmas holidays.
For Barbee, the experience of playing top programs is worth it.
“Last season, in our non-conference schedule of 14 games, we only had three national games,” Barbee said. “This year we’ve doubled that, from three to six. You look at the fact that we will play Seton Hall in the Big East-SEC Challenge, the return game of USF coming here, our continuing series against FSU where they were a Sweet 16 team and a nationally-ranked team and then you look at what we are going to do.
“You look at all those opportunities to play on ESPN with the possibilities of playing the likes of Xavier, an NCAA Tournament team, and Long Beach State, an NIT team, in the second round (in Hawaii). We’re excited about where we’re at in being able to build a nationally recognized schedule.”
Most of the talk in the off-season has centered on the return of Frankie Sullivan. Barbie says that even more than his shooting ability, is Sullivan’s attitude.
“He thinks he’s supposed to win everything that he does,” said Barbee. “Whether it is a game of ping-pong, a game of pool or an individual drill, or he’s stepping on the floor against a nationally-ranked team like Florida State, he thinks he is, along with his team, supposed to win that game no matter the circumstances. That kind of attitude becomes contagious.”
Auburn opens the season on November 1st against Paine College.