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May 2, 2013

Guarded optimism

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AUBURN | The design of Auburn's 2013-14 basketball team was a mystery moments after the team's loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Who will return? Who will stay?

Coach Tony Barbee has been working diligently creating a new formula to improve the Tigers' operation. Auburn finished last in 2012-13.

It's been a busy offseason so far. Barbee on Wednesday added talented point guard Jerome Seagears, a transfer from Rutgers, and moments later bid farewell to combo guard Brian Greene Jr., who joins classmate Jordan Price as relative newcomers leaving the program.

They represent the third and fourth Barbee signees to request transfers out of Auburn. If including players Barbee inherited when hired three seasons ago, that number rises to seven: Earnest Ross, Ty Armstrong and Andre Malone. In addition, three players have been dismissed for violating team rules under Barbee.

There were at least 450 college basketball transfers last season and there will be that many this season, maybe more. For myriad reasons, college basketball transfers are trending upward. Alabama just watched their second leading scorer, Trevor Lacey, announce his transfer. He was a sophomore and the team's Most Outstanding Player last season. Nobody is immune.

Seagears and six 2013 signees will join Virginia transfer K.T. Harrell to represent eight brand-new players for Barbee next season. Harrell sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

That's not an ideal situation for Barbee entering his fourth year on the Plains. Neither is going 9-23 and winning only three conference games.

Perhaps new blood isn't a bad thing.

In March, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said in a statement that his "expectation is for our program to show significant improvement under Coach Barbee's leadership."

Auburn has two winning seasons during the last ten years. It's Barbee and his staff's job to create a winning culture -- then acquire talented players who thrive within that revamped culture. Barbee's style focuses on forcing players out of their comfort zones in order to create adversity. Teams that adapt well to changing conditions, Barbee believes, play deep into March.

Departed guard Frankie Sullivan understands Barbee's style and admits not every player is cut out for it.

"It's a problem with kids these days when you can't take the criticism or the punishment. You should just take it as motivation and him not laying it down," he said. "It's not a problem with me."

Barbee's style may be the reason players have left the program, but Sullivan's words carry weight. It's a "problem", Sullivan says, but he doesn't place the blame with Barbee. When your basketball program has only four 20-win seasons in the last 27 years, maybe drastic measures are needed.

Seagears still has to be granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately. Given the circumstances surrounding his departure and many of his Rutgers teammates, there is optimism that waiver will be granted. Harrell is being touted by some college basketball analysts to be an impact player in the conference next season and the Auburn coaches expect the same.

Both were Rivals150 prospects out of high school -- Seagears No. 101 overall in 2011 and Harrell No. 30 overall in 2010. Combine the duo with returning sophomore and Rivals150 prospect in 2012, Shaquille Johnson, and senior guard Chris Denson, a promising backcourt may develop.

Barbee came to Auburn with the reputation of playing up-tempo ball, but that philosophy quickly was shelved early in his tenure. Talent often wins in an up-tempo game and Auburn hasn't matched its SEC contemporaries in terms of talent. So Barbee adjusted.

That up-tempo scheme may return next season and Auburn should feature guard combinations more talented than any he's had in his first three seasons.

Senior Allen Payne, sophomore Jordon Granger and incoming freshman Matthew Atewe will battle at the forward position. Payne was a member of Barbee's first signing class in 2010, and unlike others, has endured. He scored a career-high eight points per game last season. Atewe has the 6-foot-9, 240-pound body that will allow him to battle for immediate playing time. Asauhn Dixon-Tatum returns at center after displaying toughness and spirit last season, two attributes sorely needed around Auburn Arena.

Newcomer Tahj Shamsid-Deen will earn playing time at point guard, he won three state titles at Columbia High School. Findlay Prep teammates Benas Griciunas and Dion Wade may need a redshirt season to bulk up, and incoming 7-foot center Ronald Delph is raw, but athletic.

This could be an intriguing team -- for all the right reasons.

Dismissals and transfers combined with Tigers' worst basketball season in a generation certainly has created adversity for Barbee. Time will tell what significant results come to fruition next season.



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