"We are disappointed we are not playing in the NCAA, but these kids have been unbelievable," Lebo says of his team which goes into the tournament with a 22-11 record vs. 22-9 UT-Martin, regular season champions of the Ohio Valley Conference.
"The 22 wins this year is the third most in school history," Lebo notes. "Eleven wins in the SEC, including one in the tournament with a bye in there...we have had a very successful year. I am very happy for the kids, proud for kids. It has been a heck of a month and a half ride. It really has been. It has been a lot of fun."
Lebo's players will face a first round opponent led by 6-2 senior guard Lester Hudson, the nation's second leading scorer at 27.3 points per game. He also leads the Skyhawks in rebounds at 7.8 per game and assists at 4.1. "The guy's a pro talent," Lebo says.
Auburn is favored to knock off the Skyhawks. If the Tigers win they will advance to a second round game which is expected to be played on Friday night in Auburn vs. the winner of Northwestern vs. Tulsa, which is also on the Wednesday night schedule.
Over the years there have been many first round upsets in the NIT with teams suffering a hangover from not making it into the NCAA field.
Coach Jeff Lebo
Lebo notes he has addressed that issue with the Tigers and hopes it won't be a problem. "The kids haven't played in postseason since I have been here so these kids haven't had a chance. Hopefully, they will be excited to play.
"There are lot of teams, a ton of teams, that aren't playing right now," he adds. "We will try as coaches to get it out of their system as quickly as we can."
UT-Martin's second leading scorer is Marquis Weddle, a 6-1 sophomore guard averaging 13.9 points per game. Olajidge Hay, a 6-6, 235 senior forward, is averaging 9.6 points and five rebounds per game.
The other starters are 6-8 senior forward Djero Riedewald (5.0 points, 4.4 rebounds) and 6-1 junior guard Delrico Lane (5.1 points, 4.6 rebounds).
Top reserves include 6-5 sophomore guard Benzor Simmons (6.3 points, 3.5 assists) and 6-3 sophomore guard Reuben Clayton (5.5 points, 1.7 assists).
Senior Korvotney Barber has taken over the team scoring lead for Auburn at 13.1 points per game to go with 9.8 rebounds per contest. Junior DeWayne Reed is scoring 12.9 points with 3.9 assists for the Tigers. Auburn's other double figures scorer, junior Tay Waller, is at 12.5 points per contest.
With a strong run in the NIT, senior Rasheem Barrett could get his scoring average into double figures, too. He is currently averaging 9.5 points per game.
Barrett says he believes the Tigers should be in the NCAA Tournament. "We practiced hard, we played our hardest and gave it our all this season," he says. "What were we--22 and 11 and in the SEC won 10 games? I think in the SEC that says enough. Obviously, the people making the decision didn't think that."
Barrett, who was injured in preseason and wasn't full speed until after conference play started in January, says he is looking forward to playing more basketball. "Just because you don't make the NCAA, you still don't look down at the NIT. You are still fighting to win a championship in some form or fashion."
The senior adds that doing well in the NIT would show the Tigers were worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth. "It would be really nice to say, ‘Hey, I told you so. We were a pretty good team.'"