AUBURN, Ala. – Tony Barbee has a burning question for his Auburn basketball players.
Who are we?
“I want to know, are we the team that against Florida State, LSU and South Carolina, when we were in a hole, we continued to fight and throw punches?” Barbee said after a robust practice Monday. “Or are we the team that against Arkansas and Kentucky, when it got tough, we let go of the rope? Which team are we?”
Barbee, ever confident and defiant, believes he has the answer.
“If (Monday’s) practice is an indication,” Barbee concluded, “we’re the team that’s throwing punches.”
Auburn will take a swing at Vanderbilt Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Nashville, where the Tigers (8-9, 2-2 SEC) are itching to dispose of a disheartening two-game losing streak. The game can be viewed on ESPN3.com and heard on the Auburn IMG Sports Network.
Junior forward Allen Payne was poetic in lamenting the differences in how the Tigers lost at Arkansas and to visiting Kentucky last week, partially echoing his coach.
“At Arkansas, I think we let go of the rope. The Kentucky game, we gave up hope,” Payne said. “That’s not the team we are.
“We’ve always been a scrappy, fighting team. I think we lost that Saturday night. That’s what we need to get back to, to start winning again.”
In the first Auburn Arena sellout of the year, the Tigers came out timid, shrinking from the boisterous atmosphere.
“We didn’t have the fight that we had against LSU, Florida State – pulling, slapping, doing anything to get the ball,” junior guard Chris Denson said. “The 50-50 balls, we didn’t get against Kentucky. That’s the bottom line of winning, and we weren’t doing that like in the past.”
Auburn allowed struggling Kentucky to romp for 48 points in the second half after an offensively-challenged start for both squads.
“What happened the other night is a little bit of an anomaly for this team. We had a lot of wide-open shots – shots that have been going down, they didn’t go down,” Barbee said, adding he felt the lack of offense affected the Tigers’ usual grit. “Could have been the moment, the crowd, the expectations that were on that game.
“But like I told the guys, that’s why you play this game. You don’t play it just to be out there and get a uniform – you play it for those types of moments.”
While veterans Rob Chubb and Frankie Sullivan said they didn’t feel nerves in Saturday’s showdown, others admitted to feeling jittery. The Tigers’ 53 points and 35 percent field-goal shooting were each their second-lowest marks of the year.
“Big-time players step up in those moments,” Barbee said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have anybody step up.”
Deep-shooting Vanderbilt (7-9, 1-3), a young squad which takes nearly half its attempts from 3-point range, doesn’t possess nearly the mystique of the defending national champions.
But the Commodores easily could be in the Tigers’ heads with a six-game winning streak in the series – no active Tiger has beaten Vandy, and Auburn hasn’t won at Memorial Gym since 2000.
“We can’t be scared of anybody,” Payne said, “whether it’s Kentucky, the defending national champs, or Auburn Middle School. We’ve got to go out with the killer mentality and try to take anybody’s head off.”