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February 26, 2009

Jeff Grimes speaks …

Yesterday was hectic, so I didn’t have a chance to post anything about offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, who joined Jay Boulware and Gus Malzahn in speaking with the media.

So here is Part VII of our running feature, Better Know an Auburn Assistant Coach, starring Grimes, who may or may not prefer to be called by Grimey.

On to the bullet points …

  • He and head coach Gene Chizik didn’t have much of a relationship prior to joining up at Auburn, though Grimes coached at Colorado while Chizik was at Iowa State in the Big 12.
  • Although he coached in the Western part of the country for the last couple years (Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State), his roots are in Texas, where both he and his wife are from. “I really like being in the South,” he said. “I like the people here. I love the idea of being in a smaller town, a college town, and raising my kids and having my family at a place that has similar values to the kind of place I grew up.”
  • He was struck by how fast Gus Malzahn‘s offense will work, and this is coming from someone who has worked in some fairly unique, high-powered offenses before. “Being able to operate at a fast pace is something a lot of people don’t want to do,” he said. “I have done that at a couple of places I’ve been but not to this extent and not that consistently. That’s the biggest difference.”
  • From the sounds of it, there will competition for playing time, but Grimes is not going to discount what guys have done here in the past, recognizing the fact that Auburn has four players — Ryan Pugh, Lee Ziemba, Byron “Lee” Isom and Mike “Big Snacks” Berry – who have experience, in some cases two years worth.
  • On that subject: “I think the way you have to approach it anytime, particularly if you’re a new staff, you have to come in and say guys will have an opportunity to earn something. And that gives a guy maybe who hasn’t had a level of success he’d like to a fresh start. Guys all of a sudden have a renewed mindset because they get a clean slate so to speak.However, I don’t want to discount some of the things that have been done by some guys that have had success. We’ll certainly have a starting point but we’re not going to necessarily line up and say, ‘You guys are No. 1 until you lose the job.’ We’re going to say, ‘You guys have the opportunity to start out here,’ but this guy right here is right behind him and it may vary by day or by series.”
  • An early starting five? Here’s a guess: LT Ziemba, LG Isom, C Pugh, RG Berry, RT Andrew McCain.
  • Who else will contend? Jared Cooper, Bart Eddins, A.J. Green. Some of those guys may be unproven on gamedays but may show us in spring ball that they’re just as deserving as starting as somebody else,” Grimes said. “Those guys will have the opportunity to do that.”
  • Ziemba’s not quite at full speed after offseason surgery, “but he’s getting close,” Grimes said. He’ll be ready for spring.
  • Auburn is undoubtedly low on numbers on the line, having signed only two offensive line recruits in its last two classes. That’s going to rear its head soon. Grimes said he would like to have 15 to 17 linemen on scholarship at all times. He’s got 10 right now. “It’s an urgent priority,” he said. “Typically, you’re not going to have guys coming in and playing a lot as true freshmen. That’s not the way you’d like for it to be. We’d like for those guys to come in and redshirt and have a year or two and get ready to go. But that’s fixing not to be the situation for us. Most of the guys we have on scholarship are juniors. We’re really heavily stacked in the junior class, which will be great for this year and next year, but not great after that.”
  • Grimes said Auburn might target some junior college players to bridge the gap from the current junior class to the freshman class. He’d like to sign five or six offensive linemen next year.
  • On what he looks for in recruits: “Guys have to, obviously, be big enough. Some people say they recruit guys who are 6-5 or taller, or only recruit guys who can run ‘this’ in the 40, or bench ‘this.’ I’m looking for the best guys we can find after that.”
  • He had a funny take on what it’s like to play offensive line: “You’ve got to be a guy willing to put his hard hat on every day and work hard in the weight room and things that aren’t a whole lot of fun. It’s no fun getting out there and pushing the sled and doing all those silly drills that we do all the time. It’s not like going out there as receivers and catching balls and running routes and throwing and doing all that stuff. Think about it, when y’all were kids in the backyard you weren’t working on blocking people. You were doing your touchdown dance, and throwing and catching. An offensive lineman has to have the mentality that allows him to go out there and trudge away every day and be OK with that.”
  • He called incoming freshmen Andre Harris and John Sullen “tweeners,” in that they could possibly play both guard and tackle.
  • There’s a big question out there about how the linemen can stay big enough to play the physical brand of football that Auburn wants, yet be in good enough shape to run 80-plus plays, as Malzahn would prefer. Grimes would like his guys to be somewhere in the 300- to 310-pound range. That wasn’t the case last year when they wanted to be lighter on their feet to run Tony Franklin‘s offense.
  • Grimes’ recruiting area is southeast Alabama as well as a little bit of Georgia and a little bit of Florida, though he didn’t specify where. He likes how so many talented players are in such a condensed area. “One of the challenges of being at a place like Colorado or Arizona State or Boise State, some of those places, you’ve got a few kids in-state but then everyone else, you’re having to travel quite a ways to grab some kids,” he said. “Here, we’ve got so many kids that are in driving distance that can come up for camp in the summer, come up for spring ball and watch practice. I think that certainly helps.”
  • Grimes plans to work players at different positions in the spring, in order to build some artificial depth. He wants to have the five best players on the field at all times, which might require some shifting if somebody goes down with an injury.
  • And finally, that shiner you see under Grimes’ right eye in the picture is courtesy of his 130-pound bull mastiff, which, sadly, had to be put to sleep last week. The two bumped heads as Grimes was trying to carry the dog down the stairs.

Men’s hoops; Auburn 77, Ole Miss 64

A miracle 3-pointer sparked a second-half surge as Auburn beat Ole Miss by 13 at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

Quantez Robertson provided the shot that turned the tide, getting up the court in the final 3.1 seconds of the first half, nearly having the ball knocked loose from his hands, gathering it and sinking a 3-pointer at the horn to get Auburn into the locker room down by only four.

The Tigers (18-10, 7-6 SEC) carried that momentum through the half, scoring the first 11 points coming out of the locker room and going on a 23-5 run that Ole Miss (15-12, 6-7 SEC) couldn’t overcome.

Auburn out-scored Ole Miss 41-24 in the second half, avenging the 19-point drubbing the Rebels administered in the teams’ first meeting in Oxford on Feb. 4. The Tigers have won five of six since that game.

“This was one team we really wanted to beat,” said guard Tay Waller, who made four 3-pointers and finished with 18 points.

This win was significant for a number of reasons. It puts Auburn in a second-place tie with Mississippi State in the SEC West, with the teams set to play in Starkville on Saturday at 6 p.m. EST.

It’s also the first time in head coach Jeff Lebo‘s five years on the Plains that Auburn has won 18 games in a season.

Some other thoughts …

  • You really can’t overstate the importance of Tez’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. Lebo said it reminded him a lot of Nets guard Devin Harrismiracle shot that SportsCenter devoted 20 hours of coverage to last week. I’d agree with that assessment, although Tez’s doesn’t quite compare.
  • If that wasn’t enough, Waller scored seven points in the first 51 seconds of the second half, getting fouled on a 3 on Auburn’s first possession and completing a four-point play. The next time down the floor, he came off a high screen and sank his fourth 3-pointer of the night to put Auburn ahead 43-40.
  • Waller is averaging 20.2 points in the last five games, going 21-for-47 from 3-point range.
  • Another monster night for Korvotney Barber, who notched his ninth double-double, with 13 points and 13 rebounds. And he faced a big challenge on the glass, too, matching up with Ole Miss’ Malcolm White, who grabbed 18 rebounds. After getting out-rebounded 22-10 in the first half, the Tigers held a 23-19 advantage in the second half.
  • The Rebels fell apart in the second half. They shot 25 percent, missed 16 of their first 17 shots and finished the game with a season-high 23 turnovers. Worse yet, they were bickering on the floor for parts of the second half. “Making that nice little run we made, some teams don’t know how to handle it and some do,” Robertson said.
  • Memo to Auburn promotions: don’t try the white out again. It simply doesn’t work in a half-empty arena.
  • This win bodes well for Auburn’s postseason chances. The Tigers were a sixth seed in the latest NIT-ology projection, last updated on Feb. 23. Not only that, but Ole Miss is shaping up to be one of their direct competitors in what could be a tight field.
  • And finally, Auburn legend Vincent “Bo” Jackson, aka the Greatst Video Game Athlete of Our Lifetime (scroll to the bottom), was in attendance. Looking back, I guess he was a pretty good real football player too. I’m sure Bo was good for 10-12 points on the scoreboard, just by sitting courtside.

February 25, 2009

Jay Boulware speaks ….

Part VI of our ongoing series, Better Know an Auburn Assistant Coach. Tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Jay Boulware.

I’ll spare you the preamble and get straight to the bullet points …

  • Boulware followed Gene Chizik to Auburn from Iowa State, but he was in limbo for a few weeks: “That’s the life of a coach,” Boulware said. “This is a business first and foremost. What Coach Chizik had to do was take his time and do what’s best for Auburn. He wanted to make sure he took his time and picked each and every coach. I just think he wanted to do it the right way and just to make sure every aspect was addressed and he didn’t leave any stone unturned as he stared looking for a coaching staff.”
  • On the coaching staff Chizik assembled: “This is the best staff I’ve ever been on, including when I was a GA at Texas.”
  • Chizik hired Boulware away from Utah. They met the day of the Super Bowl to talk, hoping to get it done beforehand. Instead, they talked for 10 to 12 hours. “It was the best interview I ever had,” Boulware said. “I saw no parts of the Super Bowl. The only thing I saw was (Tony) Dungy and Lovie Smith walking across the field about to shake each other’s hand and the confetti was coming down. I didn’t even know who won. I didn’t even know who won. I just looked for a second to see who was smiling and who was frowning.”
  • What did they talk about for 12 hours? “Ball, baby. Ball. Every single aspect. When he met me, he told me — it’s kind of funny, he probably won’t admit this — he said ‘I got three guys I’m looking at, and you’re one of the three, and when we get done here, I’m going to interview the other two guys.’ Well, before I got on the plane, he offered me the job. So, that was pretty good feeling to know that I at least said enough to him that he respected me enough prior to leaving.
  • Boulware said despite Chizik’s 5-19 record at Iowa State, the Cyclones were making progress. He cited the fact that they had 33 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. “Which is unheard of in the Big 12,” he said. “I definitely believe we were making progress. I believe we got better. I think if you ask the majority of people, they saw a quicker, faster football team in our second year. We were just really young. Any time you start nine or 10 true freshman, you’re in trouble. You’re in trouble, so you better strap it up. They say you lose two games for every true freshman that you start and we didn’t have 18 games to play.”
  • Boulware claims Iowa State was a lot closer to winning some games last season than its record indicates (honestly, I know next to nothing about Iowa State football, so I can’t really contend his point). He even said the Cyclones could have easily had five wins if certain things had gone their way late in games. “You know, one more in there, which is very doable in the Big 12, and now you’re bowling and now he’s a hero and now you guys aren’t having conversation, and you’re looking at me like ‘OK, I know why you came here. I know why Gene’s here.’ You know, that wouldn’t even be said. Football’s a game of momentum and anytime you get it on your side, there’s no telling what ends up happening. Obviously, if you don’t have it, you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and dig your way out of it, and that’s what that football team did the entire season. They just kept fighting. Even though we weren’t winning games, they were still fighting.
  • On Chizik’s reaction to losing games last year: “Obviously, he didn’t like the fact that we were losing games, so he had to find solutions to it. But he was awesome. He was an awesome guy to work for. He never changed. He stayed true to what he believed in. It’s hard to keep guys playing hard when you’re losing 10 games in a row. … He kept those guys playing really hard and I thought he did a phenomenal job.”
  • Boulware was impressed with Auburn’s special teams from last year, despite a shaky season from place-kicker Wes Byrum. The Tigers were at or near the top of the conference rankings in punting, punt return and kick return. “And a lot of people don’t realize that, because too often times, the media and maybe even fans, you judge how the special teams were based on what you saw the kicker do.”
  • More on that subject: “Everybody keeps saying, ‘We weren’t very good on special teams.’ I’ve heard it over and over and over again. To me, when I hear that, I say, you’re wrong. You had a punt returner that took to the house, you had a kickoff return that took two to the house. The only area I felt like was deficient on this football team in that regards was your kickoff coverage unit.”
  • Boulware sounded excited about incoming freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen, one of Auburn’s top recruits: “Phenomenal athlete. Phenomenal athlete. Tremendous hands. We plan on Philip being a big part of what we’re doing next season. I think Philip is exactly what we’re looking for and I look forward to coaching him. I like his attitude. I like his demeanor. I like everything about the kid right now.”
  • Boulware likes what he sees athletically out of Gabe McKenzie, who returned to tight end from defensive end near the end of last year. How much he’ll be used is a matter of how much of the offense McKenzie can “absorb,” though. “We’ll just have to see where he ends up,” Boulware said. “Gosh darn, he’s a good-looking young kid, though.”
  • Tommy Trott, who had surgery to repair his ACL in November, is not going to participate in spring drills. “Tommy’s busting his tail right now trying to get himself healthy to come back,” Boulware said. “No one’s more teed off, per se, than he is right now because he wants to be out there and he wants to be a part of it. It’s his senior year coming up and he’s looking to have a big year. I don’t think he’ll be able to participate, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure where he’s at right now. He’s not that far removed from that injury that he had.”
  • You kicking competitors this season: Morgan Hull and Byrum.
  • Your punters: Clinton Durst (yes he’s back with the team) and Ryan Shoemaker.

Gus Malzahn speaks …

Welcome back to the War Eagle Extra. After a slow weekend of blogging, we’re back with our ever popular series Better Know an Auburn Assistant Coach.

This installment (Part V I believe) is of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who sat with us beat hacks for nearly a half an hour today, getting a little more specific into his offense and what we can expect to see next season.

Up front, here are some of the big points before we dig a little deeper:

  • The quarterback position is wide open. Everyone’s going to get a shot.
  • He’d like one quarterback to be THE guy. He’s not messing around with a two-quarterback system.
  • There is no pecking order going into the spring.
  • He wants to play fast. Getting 80 plays a game is the goal. That means snapping the ball 12-15 seconds after the ballcarrier gets up from the previous play.
  • He’ll take what the defense gives him, whether that is on the ground or in the air.

Now, I came on this beat in September, so I did not get to go through the installation of the Tony Franklin system last offseason, but from what I’ve heard, a lot of this sounds the same. Although I will say it seems like this was done far less haphazardly, in that Auburn went to great lengths to put together a coaching staff that is all on the same page. You can’t say the same for Franklin and Tommy Tuberville‘s long-time assistants last year.

“Really, it doesn’t take very long at all for players,” Malzahn said of his desired pacing. “Once they get the communication down and they get going, it’s a short period of time.

“Really the coaching is the difference. Coaches are so creatures of habit and are used to doing certain things a certain way. Once the coaches get to thinking quick and all the things that go into making decisions quicker and the communication, but for players, no, it happens extremely quick.”

On to the bullet breakdown …

  • Malzahn explained how coaches would coach players more than actual positions in an offense that uses its personnel in lots of different ways. For instance, Jay Boulware will coach tight end Tommy Trott whether he is used in a traditional tight end formation or as an H-back.
  • On the quarterback position battle: “It’s going to be wide open. We’re coming into this thing new and everybody’s starting new, and they’re going to have to earn it. … And early on you will see some equal reps. As soon as possible, and I can’t tell you exactly when that is, but we definitely want to narrow it down. And ideally, you’d like to go into a season with a guy. Now I can’t tell you for sure right now that that will happen, but that is a goal.”
  • On if he’s ever considered a two-quarterback system: “No. With what we do, we’re a quarterback oriented system, and I think that you’ve got to have a guy, and you’ve got to have a guy that’s the leader. So that’s what we’re looking for.”
  • A mobile quarterback is nice, but not essential. “We don’t have to have a 4.4-4.5 guy but we need to have a good operator. You look back at the kid we had last year at Tulsa, Dave Johnson, he ran a five flat. But he was such a great operator to read zone, he could steal you an extra 10,15 yards just through his execution. But we will have to have a quarterback that will make some plays with his feet.”
  • He liked what he saw out of incoming freshmen Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley, who he says are more similar than people think. “Both of them can make plays and both of them are used to winning. I think there is great power in quarterbacks that are used to winning. I mean, you look at both those guys winning championships, that’s what they’re used to doing. They’re both very good leaders and they both have that it factor that quarterbacks have to have; the intangibles to make everybody else on the same page and make everyone at the best that they can be.”
  • He said it is rare that a freshman can come in and start at quarterback right away, but it is possible. He didn’t comment specifically on Auburn’s situation, though.
  • Chris Todd is back throwing again after offseason shoulder surgery. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to go full bore during spring.
  • On Kodi Burns: “I watched him and the other quarterbacks, of course I’m more familiar with him because I actually coached against him in high school. He’s got a great attitude right now. I know he’s been working extremely hard, as well as the other quarterbacks have. He’s ready to get to spring. It’ll be interesting to see.”
  • On Neil Caudle: “I’m thoroughly familiar with Neil, too. With the fact that when I was at Springdale, we went to Hoover 7-on-7s and Spain Park was there. Mitch Mustain and Neil were kind of buddies, they were in that Elite 11 group. I’m very familiar with him, he’s a rhythm quarterback and has a very good arm, I do know that about him. He seems like a super kid. He’s that type of kid that has the characteristics you look for in a quarterback, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
  • On Barrett Trotter: “I’m not real familiar with him, but I’ve heard good things about him. I really really like him as a person. He’s got that ability too where he can make a play with his arm and his feet.”
  • There WILL be a designated Wildcat guy. In the early going, Mario Fannin will be the player most likely to fill that role because he did it last year.
  • But Malzahn also liked the prospects of incoming freshman Dontae Aycock, who played quarterback in high school but will be a running back in college. Emory Blake and Travante Stallworth could play the position as well. “With our offense, we like those versatile guys the ability to run the ball, be a receiver and throw the football. All three of those guys can do that. As a play caller, that gives you the flexibility to do a lot of things.”
  • Junior college athlete Demond Washington will start out at tailback and see what happens.
  • The main influence for Malzahn’s offense is other high school coaches. He didn’t serve as an assistant anywhere for long early on, getting a head coaching job in his second year. “I got different bits and pieces from different people,” he said. “Just tried to have very few plays and tried to perfect them. … For whatever reason people think we have so many different plays, but if you really break us down, we have a few base things and we’re going to try to be the best at those things and then we’ll try to build on those and this gives you the ability to take what they give you.”
  • On his career path and how being a head coach might have helped him in his current role: “I’m used to taking a team and trying to identify the strengths and weaknesses and trying to make it all fit. I do think in a situation like this that can give me an advantage as far as that goes. The only system I know is the one that I’ve been doing since I’ve started, so I don’t know any other systems and don’t have any other information. I know exactly what I want and I know exactly what I’m looking for. And then having that high school background, I’ve been on the other end of it. People say I think outside the box, I don’t know if that’s true, but I know I’m somewhat different than the traditional college coach that may be an offensive coordinator.”
  • Someone asked a question about needing the head coach to buy into the system as well, a not-so-veiled reference to Houston Nutt at Arkansas, who had a difference of opinion with how he and Malzahn’s offense should look. “It starts with all your coaches on the same page,” Malzahn said. “When your coaches are on the same page, the players believe it better. I think there’s great power in that. I’ll tell you right now, our coaches are all on the same page. Coach (Gene) Chizik has done a wonderful job of hiring guys who are not only good coaches, but good people. That’s why I’m in coaching, to make a difference in kids. I’m a high school guy that’s just been fortunate to coach college. A lot of our coaches are just good solid people.”
  • He has heard the haters before (Arkansas anyone?), but doens’t mind: “Obviously there were doubters. When you’re a high school coach and you go into the SEC, yeah. I’m extremely motivated. It really doesn’t make any difference as far as that goes. I have very high expectations and just really focus on my job at hand, so I don’t really get caught up. But yeah, there were doubters. But that’s OK.”
  • To reiterate, Malzahn wants to play fast. Eighty plays per game is the goal. “Usually that equated into wins and losses.”
  • On if his offense is pass-based or run-based: “It goes back to taking what they give you. Last year, we were perceived as a passing team at Tulsa. At times, we were. Against New Mexico we threw for almost 500 yards. The next week, I think we ran for 300. They were playing two safeties. They were playing cover 2. We ran the football. It was common sense. We don’t go into a game saying we’re going to run it this many times or pass this many times.”
  • He didn’t touch a question about why, after watching tape, he thought last year’s offense struggled. Coaches don’t like to throw other coaches under the bus.
  • The big question is how Auburn plans to get its offensive linemen big enough to play the smashmouth brand of football Chizik wants, yet still able to line up 80 times a game and be physical. “Our offensive line does have to be in great shape,” Malzahn said. “They have to get used to playing fast, recovering quickly. We try to get our guys into basketball shape. I don’t mean that as a soft word. Our guys are going to recover quickly. They’re going to mentally and physically recover. Our offensive line will run more than any offensive line in the country.”
  • He made sure to emphasize this point, so I will italicize and bold part of it: “I want to make this point too. You hear a lot about no huddle and a lot about ‘fast,’ but our goal is to play fast. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. We’re not so much a no-huddle, look-to-the-side team. You will see us do that sometimes. That’s not really who we are. I like to think we’re a little bit different than everyone else.
  • How fast? This fast: “With the old rules, when they put the ball down, we’re going to snap it within five seconds of when the referee puts the ball down. Boy, I tell you what, these new rules they put in last year, for us, are really good. We’ll be extremely fast. As soon as the ball is handed to the referee, I’d say within 12-15 seconds after the guy’s getting up, we’ll have the ball snapped.”
  • He’s an on-the-field coach, not a press box guy: “I like looking that quarterback in the eye and getting a feel for him. I want to be right there. I don’t want to talk through somebody else. I’m used to being on the field.”
  • Malzahn will recruit Arkansas and Louisiana and be heavily involved with any offensive player, regardless of location.

February 23, 2009

No tear in Hilliard’s knee

Good news for the Auburn women’s basketball this afternoon. Reserve forward Chantel Hilliard does not have a tear in her left knee after going down in pain during the second half of the Tigers’ win against Georgia.

Honestly, it looked bad when she went to the floor, and didn’t appear much better when she was carried off the floor. The exact injury wasn’t specified by the training staff, but Hilliard is questionable for Auburn’s regular season finale against Arkansas on Sunday at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

Hilliard’s stats are modest (3.3 ppg in 12.2 mpg) but she has become one of the few viable options off the bench for the Tigers, who are not deep. She scored eight crucial points Sunday against Arkansas, scoring six straight for Auburn as it put the game away late in the second half.

Two other Auburn-related notes today …

  • Thompson wins SEC honor: We don’t cover much softball here, but it is worth noting that pitcher Anna Thompson was named SEC Pitcher of the Week. Her stats last week are ridiculous: 3-0, 0 ER, 44 K in 18 2/3 innings. She set the school’s single-game record with 18 strikeouts against Middle Tennessee on Feb. 20.
  • Oku makes move: The bizarre David Oku saga just got a little bit weirder. Oku has enrolled in classes at Lincoln East High in Nebraska this semester, according to Nebraska.StatePaper.com. (apparently Oku is playing the recruiting process like a Stradivarius). The all-purpose back, who is considering Auburn among a host of schools, used to live in Midwest City, Okla. This is interesting because he recently added Nebraska to the list of schools he is considering. Think the Cornhuskers might be near the top now that he’s going to school in Lincoln? I’m not liking Auburn’s chances much anymore.

February 22, 2009

Women’s hoops: Auburn 65, Georgia 59

The Tigers did Sunday what they though was impossible four years ago. Their win against Georgia coupled with Vanderbilt’s loss at Ole Miss gave the Tigers at least a share of their first SEC regular season title since 1989.

According to the players, head coach Nell Fortner told her current seniors when she was recruiting them four years ago that this was possible. They were skeptical.

“Of course, when you’re freshmen (and) you don’t even get to the WNIT, we’re like, ‘Oh no, coach. We’re not going to do this,’” forward DeWanna Bonner said. “We was like, ‘We (stink). What are you talking about?’”

“That was our vision,” Fortner said. “And we felt like we could do that with that recruiting class. … We’ve worked hard with them for four years, and now we’ve seen it pay off.”

Bonner led the way with 22 points and nine rebounds. Whitney Boddie added eight points, nine assists and six rebounds.

No. 3 Auburn (26-2, 11-2 SEC), which should drop when Monday’s polls are released after losing at Vanderbilt on Thursday, can clinch

the outright SEC title with a victory next Sunday at home against Arkansas.

A win or a Vanderbilt loss in its regular season finale would give Auburn the No. 1 seed heading into the SEC tournament, which begins March 5 in Little Rock, Ark.

“I don’t want to share it,” Fortner said. “If you have an opportunity to win it, you want to win it.”

Other thoughts from the game …

  • Reserve forward Chantel Hilliard gave Auburn a spark off the bench, scoring eight points, six of which came during a two-minute stretch during which the Tigers took the lead for good. But she went down with a scary knee injury with 2:44 to go. Fortner didn’t know how serious it was afterward, but it didn’t look good. Hilliard was in serious pain on the court and had to be carried off the court. A season-ending injury wouldn’t surprise me.
  • That’s a blow to Auburn’s bench, which was light even before Hilliard’s injury. Besides Hilliard, the Tigers got 10 minutes and no points out of their remaining bench players, Reneisha Hobbs and KeKe Carrier. That’ll be a concern if Hilliard can’t come back.
  • Other injury concerns: Trevesha Jackson has lingering knee problems and Hobbs took a hard fall in the second half. Auburn might have to just go with five players the whole game.
  • Impressive showing by Georgia’s forwards. Angel Robinson had 17 points and 14 rebounds and Porsha Phillips added 13 points off the bench. Teams are trying to muscle up against Auburn. It’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers respond. “It’s a physical game and you’ve got to be able to stand up to it and give it back to them,” Fortner said. “It’s just the way it is.”

Men’s hoops: LSU 79, Auburn 72

Didn’t get to go to this one in Baton Rouge so I followed it online like I imagine most of you did. Not a bad effort by Auburn, but it wasn’t enough.

What does this mean big picture? Well, instead of being tied for second place in the SEC West and having the inside track at the No. 2 seed out of the West in the SEC tournament, the Tigers (17-10, 6-6 SEC) are now tied for third with Ole Miss and would be the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament if it were to begin today.

Plus, Auburn missed out on an opportunity to get a marquee win on the road, something severely lacking on its current resume. And yes, that’s going to come into play for an NIT bid in the near future (forget the NCAA folks, it ain’t happening unless the Tigers win the SEC tournament and get the automatic bid).

Some numbers of note from the LSU game:

  • Rasheem Barrett scored one point on 0-for-1 shooting in 15 minutes. Can’t win if he has a game like that.
  • DeWayne Reed scored 16 points but went 6-for-20 from the field. Can’t win if he’s that inefficient from the floor.
  • Korvotney Barber finished with 19 points but only five rebounds. Auburn as a team had 24 rebounds. LSU had 38. Can’t get overwhlemed on the boards like that.
  • And if you want to see the biggest disparity between an NCAA tournament-bound team and an NIT hopeful, it’s at the free throw line. LSU was 21-for-22. Auburn was 7-for-13. Ballgame.
  • And still, Auburn was close at the end. This team definitely has potential if it can win enough games in the next couple weeks to make the NIT. It’s a matter of making it there now. I think if the Tigers get to 20 wins — and keep in mind they’ll be competing for a berth directly against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, two teams still on their schedule — that they have a good shot of getting in.

Baseball: Elon 11, Auburn 6

Auburn’s fans got a glimpse of what their bullpen might look like this year. It wasn’t pretty.

Tigers relievers gave up 10 runs in the final four innings Saturday at Plainsmen Park, giving up three-run home runs to Elon’s Pat Irvine and Justin Hilt.

“The guys understand that against good hitting teams — teams like Elon, teams in the SEC — we’re going to have to make quality pitches,” said John Pawlowski, who suffered his first loss as Auburn’s head coach. “And I thought in certain spots we didn’t.”

The bullpen was expected to be a big question mark for Auburn (1-1) all season. The relievers used Saturday — all four of them — didn’t provide any answers, giving up eight hits and walking three in 5 1/3 innings.

Some other quick thoughts and notes from the first baseball game I’ve seen here:

  • First of all, what a lovely field. I’ve got to say I’m impressed. It rivals many minor league stadiums that I’ve been into. I’m sure when it gets warm (it was cool and in the 50’s today), it will be a great place to watch a ballgame.
  • Elon (1-1) doesn’t seem like a pushover. The Phoenix are the defending champions and the preseason favorites in the Southern Conference, a league Pawlowski knows well after coaching at College of Charleston for nine years.
  • Those home runs weren’t cheapies. Irvine hit his opposite field over the sloping, diagonal portion of the fence in left-center. Hilt launched a moonshot over the left field wall in the ninth, prompting me to bust out the “Major League” failsafe, “No way. It’s too high.” It wasn’t. He just crushed it.
  • Not a great hitting day for Auburn, which finished with only six hits. The Tigers had their opportunities, though, stranding runners at first and third in the first inning and leaving the bases loaded in the eighth after Tony Caldwell popped out to short and Justin Hargett laced a ball that was right at the center fielder.
  • CF Trent Mummey was the exception for Auburn, going 3-for-4 with two solo home runs and three RBIs. He got emphatic when rounding third after the first one, trying to get the crowd into the game with Auburn trailing 6-3. Interestingly, he only hit four home runs all of last year.
  • The teams play the rubber match of the series today. Paul Burnside, who missed almost all of last season with a broken collarbone, will take the mound for Auburn.

February 20, 2009

Women’s hoops: Vanderbilt 73, Auburn 70

Auburn’s first shot at clinching its first SEC title in 20 years didn’t go as planned. No. 18 Vanderbilt handled the No. 3 Tigers in Nashville on Thursday, building a 16-point halftime lead and holding on after Auburn rallied in the second half to pull as close as one in the final minute.

Sherell Hobbs scored a team-high 19 points in the loss. Alli Smalley added 15.

DeWanna Bonner, who went over the 2,000-point mark for her career, scored 13 points, her lowest point total in SEC play. She is the third Auburn player to reach the plateau, joining Becky Jackson (2,068) and Vickie Orr (2,0350.

That pulls the Commodores (21-6, 10-2 SEC) even with the Tigers (25-2, 10-2) in the conference with two regular season games to play.

Auburn has home games remaining against Georgia, a team it’s already lost to, and Arkansas. Vanderbilt has road games against Mississippi and Tennessee.

More importantly, the Tigers no longer control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament, since Vanderbilt holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.

February 19, 2009

Auburn men crack latest NIT projection

As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to frequent a site called NIT-ology, a bracket projection for the second-tiered tournament most teams are bummed to make at the end of the season.

Auburn, I’m sure, would be thrilled to make the field. In the latest projection, done Tuesday, the site has the Tigers as a No. 7 seed.

It’s still early and it’s still just a projection (despite the Web site’s minimalist design, it’s still incredibly accurate), but that puts Auburn in good shape, especially if it can get at least one victory in either of its two remaining matchups with LSU, the only ranked team in the SEC.

Auburn has not qualified for the postseason in any of coach Jeff Lebo‘s first four seasons.

“It’s too early to talk about it,” Lebo said. “I think they know about the importance of it. It’s still not there yet, I think, to talk about it too much right now. Our focus right now, with our staff and with our team is just staying the course and that big old cliche, one game at a time. That’s what you’ve got to do. You can control a little bit here. We can’t control who picks them in the end. This is how we can control it — by each game.”