Auburn struggling but Lebo job safe

Beginning next season, Auburn will play its basketball games in a new 9,000-seat arena.

The Auburn Tigers are several months away from moving into a new basketball arena, and Jeff Lebo is expected to join them.

Auburn has struggled to a 10-9 start in Lebo's sixth season, losing to Troy, Central Florida and Sam Houston State. The Tigers are on pace to miss the NCAA tournament for a seventh straight year, but athletic director Jay Jacobs is confident the former North Carolina guard and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach is the right man to transition the program into a 9,000-seat facility budgeted at $92.5 million.

"That's certainly the plan," Jacobs said this week. "When Jeff came in, we were behind and getting further behind, particularly with what Tennessee built with their practice facilities. We didn't have that. There was one time where we had 100-plus days when our men's and women's basketball teams couldn't get on our floor because it's a multipurpose facility.

"This new arena will give our basketball programs the chance to have exclusive use for play and practice."

The Auburn Arena will contain more than 29,000 square feet of space for student-athletes, a two-court practice facility, coaching offices, ticket offices, a merchandise store and two food courts. It is scheduled for completion in July and could come in at under $87 million, but it may not have a team entering with momentum.

Lebo, who is 91-85 at Auburn and 30-54 in Southeastern Conference games, is enduring a sharper drop than expected from last year's 24-12 team that reached the NIT quarterfinals. The 24 victories were the second-most in program history, and the Tigers won 10 league games for only the second time in 21 years.

Auburn lost starters Korvotney Barber, Rasheem Barrett and Quantez Robertson from that team, which closed the regular season with an 8-1 mark. This season's club has four senior starters but lost to two teams that never had defeated SEC foes: Central Florida (previously 0-27) and Sam Houston State (previously 0-13).

"The experience factor for us is hard to replace," Lebo said. "When you don't perform in games like you want to as a player, I think that's what hurts your confidence more than anything else. This is such a momentum game and such a game of confidence. If you don't have that, then it's really hard to go out and play at the level that you want to play at and have some success night in and night out.

"We've got guys who are new guys and haven't played a lot of minutes, and they can lose confidence in a short period of time."

After coaching the Mocs to a 40-20 record and two trips to the Southern Conference title game, Lebo was hired at Auburn on April 8, 2004. It was a historic gamble, as no coach ever has used Auburn as a springboard to a more attractive basketball opportunity, and there was a mess to clean up from the Cliff Ellis era.

Lebo went 14-17 with the shortest NCAA Division I roster during his first season in 2004-05 and afterward signed a seven-year contract at $750,000 annually. Jacobs gave him a one-year rollover during the summer of '08, so Lebo's contract runs through the 2012-13 season.

The only SEC school with a longer NCAA tournament drought is Ole Miss, but Lebo has some things working in his favor. Auburn is 5-1 in its last six meetings against state rival Alabama, and every player who has been with Lebo all four seasons has graduated.

"I don't have concern about the momentum," Jacobs said. "We're in a tough league, and we played with Kentucky last Saturday, and there was standing room only. We're just starting SEC play, and anything can happen, and I like the way our guys are playing hard each game."