Feb. 20, 2014
From the start of the season, even in the midst of a six-game losing streak to start Southeastern Conference play, Tony Barbee has insisted that his fourth Auburn basketball team is different.
His players showed sign of backing up his words in winning four out of six going into Saturday's game at No. 2 Florida. Few gave Auburn a chance. After all, the Gators were going for their 30th consecutive home win and 18th consecutive win overall.
But there was Auburn, playing hard and tough, leading 38-30 at halftime, leading in the final minute of the game, tied in the final 20 seconds. No, Auburn didn't win it. Two mistakes in those final frantic seconds tipped the scales and Florida won 71-66, but no one could have watched the game without being impressed with the upstart visitors from Auburn. They went into an environment as tough as any in the college game as 17-point underdogs. And they came oh so close to leaving with a victory.
Auburn didn't win, and there are no moral victories. But the Tigers sent a signal to the rest of the SEC and maybe even to themselves: They can play with anybody. They won't face a team as good as Florida or an atmosphere as difficult again this season.
At the end of last season, Auburn basketball seemed hopelessly lost. Sixteen losses in the last 17 games was a numbing reality. But that's over and done with. This is a much better team than that one.
Chris Denson is having a phenomenal year, one of the most productive offensive seasons in Auburn history. K.T. Harrell isn't far behind him. Tahj Shamsid-Deen, the freshman point guard, is the real deal. He had 13 points in the first half at Florida. In a place where point guards frequently lose their poise and the basketball, he had one turnover.
The Tigers were on the verge of a program-changing victory. Players and coaches will play it and replay it in their minds. As in all close games, one shot here, one rebound there and it could have and would have been different.
The record - 12-12 and 4-9 - is not impressive. But this Auburn basketball team was impressive on Wednesday night and has been impressive on other nights, even some when it didn't win.
With five games and the SEC Tournament remaining, there is still an opportunity to do some good things. The Auburn team that played in Gainesville bore little resemblance to the one that lost six straight games. And it looked like one that could make some real noise in the SEC Tournament.
No, Auburn basketball isn't back. Not yet. But even in defeat, it took a significant step in that direction Wednesday night. The rest of the story will be told in the games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Tennessee at home and Alabama and Texas A&M on the road.
And there might just be a happy ending.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: