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February 12, 2013

Sullivan sputtering, in danger of seeing minutes drop as Auburn desperate for answers

Kentucky Auburn BasketballAUBURN, Ala. – For a guy who just joined the fraternity of Auburn’s top-ten all-time scorers – and did so in his triumph over Alabama in three years, of all games – Frankie Sullivan’s not having a lot of fun right now.

Once the SEC’s leading scorer, Sullivan is the spitting image of his sputtering team. The Tigers have lost seven of eight, all good feelings lost from a 2-0 SEC start and searching for reasons to salvage the season.

One of those solutions on the table: start playing the youngsters. At the expense of respected veterans like Sullivan, a shooting guard benched for more than the last ten minutes of Saturday’s loss at Kentucky, an outcome still in doubt until the final few minutes.

“He hasn’t been playing well, so I’ve got to do something to get his attention,” head coach Tony Barbee explained. “He made some bad decisions offensively and made some bad decisions defensively, so it’s time to look at somebody else at that position.”

Even when Sullivan wins, he loses. The Tigers came back to beat Alabama last Wednesday not because of Sullivan’s offense, but in spite of it – he connected on just 1-of-13 field goals.

Maybe the next opponent will jolt Sullivan. Auburn (9-14, 3-7 SEC) opens a three-game homestand tonight in a rematch with Arkansas (14-9, 5-5), which spoiled Sullivan’s 26-point eruption by prevailing 88-80 on Jan. 16.

Since that double-overtime heartbreak in Fayetteville, Sullivan has failed to score more than 14 points, seeing his scoring average dip more than two points to 15.7 per game. A career 40 percent shooter, he’s just 30.5 percent from the floor over that seven-game span.

“He’s still part of the team and part of the lineup and all those things, but he hasn’t been playing well enough to warrant the minutes or opportunities he’s been getting,” Barbee said. “So now it’s time to give somebody else a look. Chris Denson’s been playing the last two games, so I’m going to give him a look at that position for extended minutes and see if he could hold onto it.”

Barbee and Sullivan aren’t even on the same page when it comes to the assessment of Sullivan’s defense.

Said the player, “I think I’m playing great defense … I’ve just got to pick it up on the offensive end just a little bit more. My defense coming back around is really going to help me out with my offense in the long run.”

Said the coach, “As much as Frankie’s been struggling offensively, he’s struggling defensively as well. He’s in his fifth year, he’s beyond learning lessons. He knows if his offense isn’t going, he knows he can still affect the outcome of the game by other parts of the game: defending, rebounding and doing all the little things. And he hasn’t been doing those things either.”

Sullivan calls himself his own worst critic, and he can see an offensive turnaround in the near future, based on what he saw on film of that last Arkansas game.

“I was just taking the shots that was there and not forcing anything,” Sullivan said. “That’s when I really play the best; when I don’t try to force anything. I think my last couple of shots have been kind of forced or me going to the goal has been forced. I’ve got to make the right play when I go to the basket.”

Although the Tigers as a whole are scuffling offensively – they’ve only scored more than 62 points once in the seven-game span – Barbee wants to see Sullivan return to a scorer-distributor role.

“He’s trying to take it all on himself, he’s putting himself in bad position offensively, he’s taking bad shots when there are two guys on him,” Barbee said. “He’s got some good teammates that he’s got to trust.”

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