Phillip Marshall: Win, and basketball fans will come

Feb. 28, 2014

As another unsatisfying Auburn men’s basketball season nears its end, you hear the same talk you hear in many other years.

There’s not enough fan support. Basketball is not important enough to enough people. But here’s the truth: Auburn basketball, in those ways, isn’t different than most others in the Southeastern Conference.

In 1999, when Auburn won the SEC championship, other than the opener against Tennessee, every SEC game at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum was sold out. It was voted one of the toughest places to play in college basketball. It was tough because a great team played there and because it was an exciting and fun time for fans to be a part of.

The truth is this: Except at Kentucky, where basketball is akin to football at other SEC schools, if you are good, fans will come. If you aren’t, they won’t. All you’ll have to do to understand that is check out the number of empty seats at Coleman Coliseum on Saturday when Auburn plays Alabama.

In 1999, when Auburn went to Alabama, there were literally more Auburn fans there than Alabama fans. I’ve been at Maravich Assembly Center at LSU when there weren’t 3,000 people in the stands. Before Billy Donovan arrived, Florida was not even a blip on the college basketball radar, and fans usually found something else to do.

At Auburn and most other SEC schools, a coach doesn’t have to win championships. He just has to be in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament most years and get in some years. If he accomplishes that, he can stay as long as he wants.

It’s a fact that any team would win more if, regardless of the opponent, the arena was filled and loud and boisterous for every game. But the reality in the SEC is that it doesn’t happen unless you win first, and students have to drive that bus. Few SEC schools are in large cities where large numbers of fans can go to a game, go home and get up for work at 8 the next morning. If you’re the biggest Auburn fan in the world, and you live in Huntsville or Mobile, it’s going to be hard to go to a Wednesday night game.

I don’t buy the notion that the success of SEC football has hurt SEC basketball. Why would that be? Why would the immense national attention SEC schools get through their football programs hurt their basketball programs? And the success of those football programs makes it possible for SEC schools, including Auburn, to pay big money for coaches and to provide ample resources.

College basketball in general and SEC basketball in particular is a mere shell of what it once was. Even the best teams aren’t all that great. In recent weeks, Syracuse has lost to Boston College at home, Kentucky has lost to Arkansas at home and Florida has had close call after close call.

I’m not enough of an expert to know why that is, but I am pretty sure it’s not because the teams at the bottom of the power leagues are great.

Auburn can win in basketball. It’s been done before, and done when the league was far tougher than it is now. Sonny Smith took the Tigers to five straight NCAA Tournaments. He went to a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. He coached future first-round draft picks Charles Barkley, Chuck Person and Chris Morris. Basketball became a big deal at Auburn.

It happened for Cliff Ellis three times in 10 years, and he might still be at Auburn had he not run into NCAA problems. It didn’t happen for Tommy Joe Eagles before him or Jeff Lebo after him. It hasn’t happened so far for Tony Barbee.

When it happens again, people will marvel again at how tough it is to play at Auburn. Fans will turn out in large numbers. Until then, they won’t.

That’s life in the SEC. And it’s not going to change.

 
       

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: