In the aftermath of each of the past three deflating defeats at Auburn Arena, only one Auburn player has been ushered into the interview room, taking on a full-court press all by himself.
It was junior Chris Denson last week after the Arkansas loss, then senior Frankie Sullivan after Florida, and now junior forward Allen Payne, Wednesday’s leading scorer in a 65-56 defeat to Texas A&M, facing the music all by his lonesome.
Like his brethren before him, Payne had no answers to the same burning, probing questions as to why and how this season sunk faster than a shattered vessel.
“If I knew, we wouldn’t be sitting here 9-17,” Payne admitted. “It has to come from the guys who have been here and know what Coach wants. That’s the only explanation I can give you.”
Head coach Tony Barbee maintained his message has never wavered: give your best, or hit the bench. He couldn’t remember another year in his nearly two decades in a suit and tie with another team that repeatedly failed on so many simple fronts.
“Effort, hustle, desire, passion, energy, that’s not a mistake,” Barbee said. “Forgetting to play, forgetting where you’re supposed to go, those are mistakes. But not coming up with loose balls, not diving on the floor when it’s around your feet, and they’ve got three guys on the floor and you’re standing there looking at it, that’s not a mistake. That’s a lack of desire.”
The six words heard most often inside Auburn Arena these days? No, not a three-verse song of ‘War Eagle’. Those would be, “now in the game for Auburn” …
Barbee made a flabbergasting 44 player substitutions. Eleven different Tigers played, and eight logged at least 15 minutes – none more than Sullivan’s 28 minutes.
“He’s won at every level he’s played at and coached at,” Payne said. “So we know he’s going to sub that way, and he’s going to try and figure out the best way to put us in a position to win. Sometimes it can be tough, but we’re used to it.”
Players notoriously stick up for their coaches the way they would for their fathers. With that in mind, at the first mention of fans growing restless with Barbee – now 12-35 against SEC competition his three seasons on the Plains – there was a certain tone in Payne’s voice as he shifted straight into defense mode, the way he instinctively would after an opponent’s steal.
“He’s not playing. His playing days are over. He’s 40-plus, he’s done,” Payne said. “He’s not going to give up on us. He’s not the type of guy to quit on anything. He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around, and he loves us too much to just let us fall by the wayside.
“So they can say what they want. We back Coach 100 percent, and we know he’s not going to give up on us, so we’re not going to give up on him. It’s not him, it’s not the staff. We can’t blame anybody but ourselves. But it comes to a point where it’s time to stop talking about it, and start doing it.”
Payne struggled to discern the difference between Auburn’s practices and games. “Most practices, we have pretty good effort and energy. I honestly … I really don’t know what happens when we hit the floor,” Payne said. “That’s the time the energy and effort and passion for the game should rise to a different level, not drop to almost zero. We practice hard. We’ve got to come out and play that way.”
Still, Payne indignantly would not allow any fingers to be pointed at the coaching staff, the way Auburn’s football staff was much-maligned and eventually dismissed for its shortcomings this athletic year.
“As good as they were as players, none of them are playing with us. We’re out there on the floor,” Payne said. “The effort has to come from everybody, but it starts with the people that have been with coach for three years. That’s the seniors we have now, me and Chris.
“We have to take that upon ourselves, or we’re going to stay in this rut.”