Junior guard Chris Denson is like everybody else involved with Auburn basketball. He’s surprised, chagrined and disappointed by the season that will end with the Tigers’ next loss.
Chris Denson says he is optimistic about Auburn's future.
But for Denson, it’s not the end of the road. Even if the Tigers lose to Texas A&M tonight in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, it’s not the end. Denson, Allen Payne and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum will be seniors next season. And next season, Denson says, starts tonight.
“It has to,” Denson said. “It can’t start the second session of the summer. We have to start right now.”
For Denson, it’s been a bumpy season. He was academically ineligible until the end of the fall semester. He suffered a stress fracture in his foot. He sat out almost all of a blowout loss at Ole Miss because head coach Tony Barbee didn’t like the way he was playing defense. And he scored a career-high 24 points in an overtime loss at Mississippi State last Saturday.
But the one constant for Denson and his teammates was losing. The Tigers finished dead last in the 14-team SEC, going 9-22 overall and 3-15 in the league. Younger players who will have to play significant roles next season never bought into Barbee’s hard-nosed, often abrasive style, Denson said
“He’s a great coach, and people just weren’t buying into what he was saying,” Denson said. “I think that comes with maturity. We have a lot of young guys on this team, and we’re looking to build that up next year.”
Denson says he’s heard no talk from any of those younger players about leaving. He says that, along with Payne and Dixon-Tatum, he plans to help show the way.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Denson said. “Nobody talks about leaving in the locker room. Everybody is really excited about what we can do. Me, Allen and Asauhn are trying to take the role of leadership and mentor the younger guys and the freshmen coming in.”
But first, there is the matter of the SEC Tournament. The Tigers, the No. 14 seed, take on No. 11 seed Texas A&M (11-14, 7-11) at Bridgestone Arena.
“You throw the records out the window, throw league standings out the window,” Barbee said. “Anything can happen. … It’s just a matter if you believe, if players believe, if they believe in each other.
Teams that are excited about being around each other and continuing their seasons are usually the teams that continue on.”
Barbee says he hasn’t seen the failure to buy in that Denson and senior guard Frankie Sullivan say they have seen.
“No, I haven’t,” Barbee said. “I haven’t seen that as an issue.”
When it’s over, Barbee will look back on three difficult seasons and make decisions on how to go forward. They won’t be easy, but he insists he’s as optimistic as ever.
“Nothing has changed,” Barbee said. “I am excited about the foundation these seniors have left. I’m excited about the young guys in the program and what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned under fire, which is going to make them better coming back. I’m excited about the group we have incoming. It’s another group that just knows winning.
“We are competing and playing hard. We have to be able to finish games and do the things that lead to winning in that last two or three minutes when it’s crunch time.”