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February 25, 2013- -
AUBURN | Tony Barbee knows what's wrong with his team. That's a start.
Since a 2-0 start to the Southeastern Conference season, the Tigers have dropped 11 of their last 12 league games. The statistical profile provides a crisp snapshot of the symptoms - bottom half of the conference in scoring, defense, rebounding.
Yet that's not what troubles the Auburn coach most.
"We're getting off to fairly decent starts, then something happens during the course of a game where it seems like we fall apart -- for whatever reason," Barbee said. "I have no idea what that is. We'll stop defending, we'll stop executing, easy shots, layups, free throws, post-ups, jumpers, wide open and (they) don't go down. Then we let that adversity spill into the next thing. Then it's hard to get them to re-focus."
Sounds a lot like a lack mental toughness.
"You could go there," Barbee said.
That's an odd problem for a team that relies so heavily on experienced leaders. Auburn's top four scorers are third- or fourth-year players who average at least 23 minutes apiece. Point guard Josh Wallace is a senior as well.
Barbee exhibited patience throughout January as several of those older players struggled to produce consistently. That began to change after a lackluster, 10-point loss at Kentucky when senior guard Frankie Sullivan, the Tigers' leading scorer, was removed from the starting lineup.
Now it's Chris Denson's turn to feel the wrath. The junior, whose ability to create off the dribble sparks the team's offense, was removed from the starting lineup at Ole Miss last weekend and played only three minutes.
Barbee's reasoning was simple.
``I didn't think he was defending very well. He wasn't giving his all defensively. If you don't play on that end of the floor, you don't play."
Auburn lost the game, 88-55, but Barbee seemed at least moderately encouraged by the play of freshmen Shaquille Johnson and Brian Greene Jr., who combined to score 26 points. They'll continue to get prime opportunities to thrive Tuesday night at Alabama.
What can be accomplished in Tuscaloosa?
Barbee seems prepared to emphasize development.
"All the guys who are returning, we're talking to them about the culture of what this is about. Whether you win or lose, it's about how hard you compete and how hard you fight," he said. "You have to go that together. With the seniors, I want to see them continue to fight. They've only got five guaranteed games before their college career ends. I keep talking to them about: How do they want to go out? How do they want to be remembered here?"
Sullivan has additional motivations.
Auburn beat Alabama inside Auburn Arena three weeks ago with attentive defense and aggressive work near the paint, which yielded both easy scores and free throws.
Since then, the Tide has emerged as a potential NCAA Tournament team. Another loss to Auburn could spoil Alabama's apparent renaissance.
"Spoiling anything for those guys is good," Sullivan said. "You don't want to mess up anybody's career up, but when it comes to those guys, you try to spoil it."