The Southeastern Conference will announce its men's basketball coach of the year today, and someone who went 4-12 in league play is getting strong consideration.
Auburn's four SEC wins under first-year coach Tony Barbee are four more than anybody expected after the Tigers opened their season with losses to UNC-Asheville, Samford and Campbell. The Tigers were ranked 336th out of 345 Division I teams in the Ratings Percentage Index in December, and they fell behind their first three league foes by more than 20 points less than 10 minutes into each game.
They enter this week's SEC tournament in Atlanta coming off comeback victories over Ole Miss and LSU, which followed last-second losses to Alabama and Arkansas, and are 11-19 overall.
"Early in the year, they really didn't look like they could be a competitive team," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday. "They improved throughout the season, and I think Tony did an amazing job coaching them. I was impressed not only by what he did technically but how he kept his guys together and how they've improved."
The SEC player of the year also will be announced today. Each award is determined by a vote of the league coaches.
Florida's Billy Donovan is the favorite for the coaching honor, since his Gators went 13-3 and won the league title. Alabama's Anthony Grant has a chance after leading the Crimson Tide to a 12-4 league mark and the West Division crown, and the only other viable candidate could be Barbee.
"I just think he's done wonders, and I believe he should be considered," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "Obviously Billy, and there are two or three other guys like [Vanderbilt's] Kevin Stallings and Anthony Grant. Those guys did great jobs, but Tony is right there with them."
Barbee was hired to replace Jeff Lebo, the former UT-Chattanooga coach who went 15-17 with the Tigers in 2009-10 despite having four senior starters. Junior guard Frankie Sullivan was the only starter returning but underwent surgery last July after suffering a knee injury.
Sullivan returned before conference play, making four starts and leading the Tigers to an upset of Florida State, but then had to be shelved for the rest of the season.
The Tigers rallied from a 20-point deficit in their new arena last Wednesday to stun the Rebels, and they won Saturday in Baton Rouge after trailing by 15. Auburn will open the SEC tournament Thursday afternoon against Georgia in a rematch of last month's game won by the Bulldogs in overtime at Stegeman Coliseum.
"These kids believe they're in any ballgame," Barbee said. "It's not something we've planned on doing, digging ourselves big holes, but we pick it up, it seems, in the second half. These kids have believed all year long, even though their record doesn't indicate it.
"More than anything, this year was about building the foundation for what's to come, and these guys have done a great job of establishing what I wanted to establish."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.