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With Auburn welcoming the Gators to the plains on Saturday, we turned to two experts to preview the Tigers.
Florida and Auburn have a rivalry that rarely extends beyond the football field (or the pool), but the Gators have had the upper hand in the basketball games between the two schools of late. That should continue on Saturday, but I reached out to both College and Magnolia's Chris Fuhrmeister and former Alligator Army recruiting writer Lance Davis — an Auburn student and writer for the Auburn Plainsman — to get their takes on this tussle.
Florida's been steamrolling the SEC to this point, and Auburn doesn't appear likely to put up much more of a fight than anyone but Arkansas has. Is there any reason for Tigers fans to hope for different?
Fuhrmeister: Well, there is a small amount of hope left, at least among some fans, only because of some past results. Auburn's biggest problem this season is inconsistency, and the Tigers actually have played well at times. If they give a 100-percent effort on the defensive end, closing down on perimeter shooters and boxing out for rebounds, they can certainly slow down opposing offenses. If Frankie Sullivan returns to form and Noel Johnson, Shaq Johnson and Jordan Price are shooting well, the three-point barrage can light up the scoreboard. Unfortunately, those things haven't been happening lately, and it's led to a streak of seven losses in eight games.
Davis: No hope whatsoever. Things have gone from bad to really, really bad fast for Auburn. After starting SEC play 2-0, it's dropped eight of nine. Tony Barbee thought he was going to be able to rely on seniors Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb, but they're struggling more than anyone right now. Sullivan's known as a fine offensive player, and he takes more than 30 percent of Auburn's shots, but they aren't falling right now, and he's turning the ball over more. And where some of Auburn's early conference losses were just being beaten by better teams, the Arkansas loss was one where the team just didn't give much effort.
Auburn's in the third year of Tony Barbee's era, and seems to have regressed a bit from the nearly .500 team he coached in 2012. Is Barbee's job in jeopardy, or is the school committed to his continued employment?
Davis: It's not in jeopardy this year. If next year is more of the same, then he'll probably start to feel some heat. I think Barbee is the right guy for Auburn right now. It's tough to build a successful basketball program in Alabama. There isn't a great pool of talent in the state and it's not like Auburn and Alabama have prolific basketball histories.
Barbee's still trying to clean up the mess left behind Jeff Lebo, and it's understandable Barbee isn't having much success right now. He's had some bad luck with transfers and such, but he's getting talented players. The freshmen -- Shaq Johnson, Jordan Price, Brian Green Jr. and Jordon Granger -- aren't lighting things up, but they're talented and have very high ceilings. If Barbee can hang onto them, I think he'll be able to build around them.
Fuhrmeister: I really don't think Barbee will be fired after this season, even if he loses out. He took over terrible program and has been building it from the ground up. Some fans are running short on patience, but it would send a pretty bad message to potential replacements if a program in as much disarray as Auburn's fired a guy after only three years.
However, next season will probably be make or break for Barbee. If we don't see real improvement and some sort of postseason berth, he could be out the door.
The new Auburn arena is, by all accounts, a temple to basketball on the Alabama plains. Have you been? Is it everything it's cracked up to be? Is there something in it that you wish could be in every arena?
Fuhrmeister: It really is fantastic. I went to a few games last season, and the Florida game will be my fourth this season. Basically, whoever drew up the design is a genius.
Even if Auburn achieves sustained Florida-like success, it will always be a football school first. With that in mind, the powers that be didn't aim to build some giant arena that would hold 15-20,000 fans. It's small -- full capacity is just under 10,000 -- and the student section surrounds the court. The concourse is open-air, so if you need to hit the concession stand, you can still see the live action. And I believe I read when it first opened that the worst seat in the house is 47 feet away from the court. Despite holding a smaller number of fans, the noise level is be impressive when the crowd is into the game thanks to the low ceiling.
So yeah, Auburn Arena is awesome. Hopefully, the basketball program will be just as awesome some day soon.
Davis: Auburn Arena is my favorite place on campus, and it's smack-dab in the center of the Village dorms that were recently built and Village Dining. There isn't anything in particular that stands out about the arena that makes it so great. It's just new and clean and beautiful. The front row of the student section stands on the floor right behind press row. The crowd is right down on the court, close to the action. It only seats 9,121, but I prefer it that way. It's so spacious. Very good place to watch a basketball game. I will say that the arena Troy University just built can give Auburn Arena a run for its money. That place is impressive. Alabama is definitely lagging behind.
Auburn's most memorable game against Florida came in 2011, when neither team could hit the broad side of a battleship or the ocean around it. There's no way this year's game is a repeat of that horror show, is there?
Fuhrmeister: I doubt it, mostly because I don't think there's any way Florida shoots so poorly. The Gator offense is great, and from time to time, Auburn forgets that perimeter defense is a thing that exists. However, the Tiger offense is more than capable of going cold for loooooong stretches throughout the game.
Davis: No, and I have a theory as to why. That Auburn team was pretty much all Jeff Lebo players. Lebo's system was four guards with a center and the guards just jack threes. The only problem was they were terrible at shooting. Auburn was so awful then and my theory is, even in their first year under Barbee, they were so incompetent on the basketball court that it rubbed off on their opponent. Auburn is still bad, but they're competent. The team isn't good, but Barbee has pieces. The matchup in 2009 was pretty bad, too, though the score was better. Florida barely won, 68-65. UF was 5-23 from three, and Auburn was 5-27.
Florida fans harbor an irrational hate for Auburn in football, which has beaten both one of the best teams in Florida history and one of the worst of the modern era in the last seven years. But the Gators also ended up in the 2009 NIT essentially because of a loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament. Are you aware of this, and does it make you feel better when you consider that you needed a third-string Florida quarterback to win a national title?
Fuhrmeister: One of the many reasons I hate conference expansion is the loss of the Auburn-Florida football rivalry, which was criminally underrated. After Georgia and Georgia Tech -- yes, Auburn used to play Georgia Tech every year -- Auburn has played Florida more than any other team, including Alabama.
I certainly don't blame Florida fans for hating Auburn. After all, the Gators haven't beaten the Tigers on a football field since 2002, and watching a former Gator quarterback have a season in 2010 that topped even Tim Tebow's best year must have been frustrating. (Ed.'s note: Walked into that one.)
Davis: Andy, I'm more than a little shocked you failed to mention Wes Byrum in this question. (Ed.'s note: I was being nice! Screw Wes Byrum, though.)
I was unaware that Auburn losing helped Florida get into the NIT, but I'm definitely aware of Auburn having some success versus Florida in football. And it makes no sense. Auburn had no business beating Florida in 2006 and 2007, and neither team deserved to win in 2011. Auburn fans wanted a title so bad, they would've been OK with pretty much anybody being their quarterback. 1957 was a long time ago, and it didn't help that Alabama started adding to theirs.
I've asked a handful of people if they'd rather have one title in the middle of a bunch of terrible seasons (like what is happening) or no title and steady success. The answer is always quick and definitive: they want the title. They were kind of hoping Mike Blakely had the same sort of luck when he transferred from Florida to Auburn, but that didn't work out.
What's your prediction for the game?
Davis: 75-50 Florida. This will be a blowout and at times will look unfair. Auburn has only one guy that should worry Florida: Chris Denson, a guard who can slash and make plays at the rim. I don't think Kenny Boynton or Scottie Wilbekin will have much trouble handling him. It's just a bad time for Auburn. There have been times this season where they look competitive, but it quickly fades. Meanwhile, Florida has Will Yeguete go down and Casey Prather comes in and starts dunking on everybody. These two teams are on completely different levels.
Fuhrmeister: I'll be honest: I don't have high hopes for this one. Auburn's shooters have been in a funk, and the Tigers have been too inconsistent with their effort on defense. If Florida is hot early, especially from three, this game could get out of hand quickly. I think Auburn will keep it close for about 10 minutes, but a stretch of several minutes without a bucket will allow Florida to take a nice lead into halftime. The Tigers will hang around for a while in the second half, but the Gators will pull away late. Florida 80, Auburn 62.