Auburn, Ala.--Despite his team’s struggles on the court, Coach Tony Barbee has high praise for his seniors who will be playing their final home basketball game on Wednesday night vs. Tennessee.
Tipoff time for the contest is 8 p.m. CST at the Auburn Arena as guards Frankie Sullivan and Josh Wallace, center Rob Chubb, forward Noel Johnson and walk-on guard Dylan Spencer will be honored on Senior Night.
“They have invested a lot in themselves and they have invested a lot in this program,” Barbee says. “I appreciate the fact of how much they invested in me by sticking around and staying committed to this program. That will make them always be Auburn men.
“I am proud of these guys academically for what they have done,” the coach adds. “With Frankie already graduated and with Josh, Chubb, Noel and Dylan all going to graduate on time, they are everything that is right about college athletics. I want them to go out on top with that winning feeling.”
The last chance to do that at home is on Senior Night vs. the Vols, who come to Auburn Arena on a six-game winning streak. Auburn comes into the contest, which will be televised on CSS, trying to end a seven-game losing streak.
Barbee says his seniors are trying their best to get the team back in the winning column. Auburn is 9-20 overall and 3-13 in the league. “They have been rock steady since I have been here,” he says of the seniors. “Those guys bought in right away and they have given me everything they have...physically, mentally and emotionally.”
The coach notes that he is proud of each of those seniors. “That group of guys are going to be men who represent Auburn in a way you want every athlete to represent Auburn when they walk out of here and get their degrees,” Barbee says.
The coach notes he really liked his team’s effort on defense Saturday evening vs. Vandy even though the Tigers lost 62-55 as they struggled with their shooting. Auburn led 16-11 at the 9:52 mark of the first half, but didn’t make another field goal until there was 16:13 left in the second half to cut the Commodores’ lead to 12 points. That stretch included 17 consecutive missed shots by the Tigers.
The players and coaches watched that sequence from the Vandy game before returning to the practice court on Monday evening. Barbee says 16 of the shots were good looks.
Sullivan agrees with his coach about the Tigers getting good looks at the basket. “I had three wide-open jump shots that went in and out,” he says. “Chubb shot a layup that went halfway down and came out. Josh Wallace shot a floater that went in and out. Allen (Payne) shot an elbow pull-up that he hit numerous times this year and it came in and out. It was like flubber or something was on the ball. We just couldn’t get it to go in. I really don’t understand it.”
Barbee is shown with senior Noel Johnson.
Barbee says it has been tough on the entire team to go through such a disappointing season. “Nobody hates losing more than me,” he says. “I have aged about 10 years this year. I haven’t slept trying to figure out ways to get this team back on the winning track, but I see the direction it is going and I am excited about it.”
The coach says he is encouraged by his freshmen group that includes Shaquille Johnson, Jordan Price, Jordon Granger and Brian Greene. “I think they are in a good place,” he says. “If you watch them compete in practice, you see them work. You see them grind, you see them trying to get better, you see them asking questions, you see them frustrated when they make a mistake knowing it’s out of them trying to learn and get better.
“They take to coaching,” Barbee adds. “They take the things we are trying to build in their game and make them better players individually and as team players, and you see them putting it into their games. All of these guys have grown and gotten better.”
Auburn will need to play one of its best games of the season to have a chance to defeat the Vols. Tennessee comes into the game with a 17-11 record and a 9-7 mark in the SEC.
“Their inside-out attack is as good as anybody in the league,” Barbee says of the Vols, who feature 6-8, 270 sophomore Jarnell Stokes at forward along with 6-5 junior Jordan McRae and 6-2 junior Trae Golden at guard.
McRae, who is averaging 29.8 points per contest in UT’s last four games, leads the Vols in scoring at 16 points per contest while Golden is averaging 11.8 points and 4.0 assists.
Stokes is UT’s top rebounder at 9.2 per outing and is averaging 12.4 points per contest.
The other starters are six-foot-six sophomore guard Josh Richardson (7.6 points per game) and 6-5 freshman guard Amarni Moore (2.2 points per game).
“Stokes is playing as well as any of the big guys in the league and McRae is playing as well as any perimeter player in the league,” Barbee says.
“It is going to be a difficult challenge, especially given the physical presence that Stokes gives them in the paint scoring the ball and rebounding the ball.”
Barbee says it would mean a lot to him if he seniors can win their final home game.
Sullivan notes that it is a big deal to him and says it doesn't matter to him how the Tigers do it or whether he starts, comes off the bench or scores points or not.
" I just want to leave here with a victory and leave the people happy--just give them something good about the seniors that we are fighting and we are not giving up on this program," Sullivan adds. "I have really enjoyed my ride here. It has been unbelievable for me...Auburn is a great school.
"My education I got here was second to none," he adds. "I thank Auburn for that. I thank Auburn for the opportunity letting me come here."
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