AUBURN - Tony Barbee, Auburn's third-year basketball coach, had a point to make. And it made it in a 6 a.m. practice Monday.
Tony Barbee says leadership is lacking.
After winning their first two Southeastern Conference games, the Tigers (8-13, 2-6) have gone into a six-game swoon. They were overmatched in a 91-77 loss at Missouri last Saturday and play red-hot Alabama (14-7, 6-2), winner of six of its last seven, at Auburn Arena on Wednesday.
Barbee pointed first at himself, but he didn't spare his players. His words Monday afternoon were those of a coach who had gone beyond disappointment, beyond frustration.
"It's everything, and that's on me," Barbee said. "When I watched the tape I told these guys I'm embarrassed to say I coach this team. The majority of it is on me. My fault. I told them 'I'm going to do my job to change it and I need you guys to do your job to change it.' It hasn't been good enough. Lot of stuff. Lot of stuff. Approach to the game. Mental approach to the game. Mental toughness. Execution. Defensive toughness. A little bit of everything."
Senior guard Frankie Sullivan, Auburn's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, said he was not offended by Barbee's words. They were, he said, on target.
"I'm pretty sure you'd be embarrassed if you lose six straight games and you have a team that has the talent and one of the best recruiting classes you've put together," Sullivan said. "Then having seniors that aren't producing? I'd be pretty embarrassed myself. I don't know about Coach, but I'm embarrassed. I hate losing. It's hard to even get on a social network or even talk to your friends or family about basketball because you are embarrassed. I feel very embarrassed about it."
That's why Barbee had his team up at sunrise Monday and put them through a grueling practice.
"Yeah, I have to do something to change the direction we are going," Barbee said. "I have to get these guys' attention. It was a tough one, it was a hard one and it was bright and early. I'm not going to settle for anything but these guys' best. Each team has hold of the rope. Right now, we are the team letting go. I'm not going to let us let go."
All of Auburn's problems were exposed in the loss at No. 17 Missouri in a game that wasn't as close as the final score, a loss that dropped the record to 8-12 overall and 2-6 in the SEC.
With his most highly regarded recruiting class and a core of veteran players, Barbee thought this would be a breakthrough season after two seasons of struggles. It hasn't been. The Tigers have lost close and they've lost big, but they haven't won since a 74-71 victory at South Carolina on Jan. 12.
"It was a little bit of fool's gold because I thought our leadership was strong enough, having been through it," Barbee said. "But they weren't. I've been disappointed in our leadership since I've been here. We haven't had any. The coaches have been the leaders. When the coaches are the leaders of the team as you are going through the hard times in the middle of games, your team isn't going to be very good. When the team takes ownership of it, then you have a chance.
"I was fooled this senior group had gotten it, but they hadn't. They slipped right back into their old habits, losing habits. So I have to change it."
This Auburn team, Sullivan insisted, is far more talented than the last two, too talented to be mired in such a slump.
"He is challenging me and the other seniors to step up and win ballgames," Sullivan said. "That's what people want for us. That's what we want for ourselves. You should demand that from your players, especially having senior guards like me and Josh (Wallace) laying most of the minutes and not producing. When we lose, it's on my back. Players come to me when times are hard like this and I've been letting them down. Hopefully, I can pick it up. I will."