(Follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.)
ATLANTA — There was no comeback, no second-half magic, no late-game rally for the Auburn Tigers on Thursday.
Tony Barbee's first season on the Plains came to a predictable conclusion in a 69-51 SEC tournament loss to Georgia, a much bigger, much better team from top to bottom.
But he didn't dwell on it.
"Can't look back," Barbee said, echoing a season-long sentiment. "We've got to look ahead."
Looking back at the wreckage won't help. The Tigers (11-20) finished with their fewest wins since the 1993-94 season, placing fifth in the SEC West, the fifth time in the last seven years they've been one of the bottom two teams in the division.
But here's where things differ from the Jeff Lebo era. There's hope.
It's a word rarely spoken in Auburn basketball circles. Lebo's teams never made the NCAA tournament, coming close only once while treading water until the life raft of a new arena could push the program to the next level.
Barbee's different. In 20 years as a player or coach, he's missed the postseason only twice. He's been schooled by a noted winner, John Calipari. And in his only previous head coaching gig, he took UTEP from 10th to first place in the Conference USA in four short years.
Why would that pattern change now?
Sure, the numbers are bad this season — historically bad, in fact, if you're talking RPI — but look at what Barbee inherited. The team had no seniors. Its best player missed the season with a knee injury. Its top two recruits failed to qualify academically. Going 0-for-the-SEC was in play.
Still, the Tigers never folded. They scrapped their way to four SEC wins (I'm guessing the over paid off on that one), had a competitive surge late in the season during which no deficit was too large and gave their fan base reason to believe better days are ahead.
"They stayed together as teammates and didn't point, didn't blame," Barbee said. "They knew they had a lot of growing to do because of the inexperience. And I talked about the growing pains from Day 1. And you see how we progressed as a team and got gradually better over the course of the season. And that's what we want to try to do every year."
It won't be an instant fix. Auburn needs size and scoring. The Tigers got mauled on the boards Thursday, allowing 18 offensive rebounds. Their signature offensive play this season was the seven-minute scoring drought.
There's also the matter of making the scholarship numbers work, which will probably require some maneuvering Auburn fans like to think only takes place under Nick Saban's watch.
But it's not as though SEC reclamation projects take a long time. Mark Fox took Georgia from 5-11 in the SEC to the cusp of the NCAA tournament in Year 2. Anthony Grant had a similar turnaround at Alabama, turning a 5-11 SEC team into Western Division champs.
Why can't Auburn, which plays in one of the weakest divisions in Division I basketball and will add injured guard Frankie Sullivan, transfers Varez Ward and Noel Johnson and at least three freshman signees to its current group, make a similar jump?
Barbee refuses to sugarcoat the process — "He doesn’t shoot you no crap," forward Kenny Gabriel said. "He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear." — nor will he slow down to let the stragglers play catchup. Losing isn't in his DNA.
"They've got to commit to improving," Barbee said. "If not, they will get left behind."