AUBURN - Tony Barbee knew it was going to be hard. He knew there would be some painful days. But he not even he knew just how painful.
Junior Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan is second on the team in scoring.
In his second season as Auburn men's basketball coach, Barbee says his second Tiger team is more talented than his first. But it's still not where it needs to be to be a Southeastern Conference contender. And lately, it's hasn't been where it should be.
The Tigers were embarrassed 65-35 at Vanderbilt last Saturday. Three days earlier, they trailed Florida State 50-16 at halftime and lost 85-56.
And now comes the most daunting task yet. Auburn (10-5, 0-1) plays No. 2 Kentucky (15-1, 1-0) tonight at the Auburn Arena. Tipoff time is set for 7.
"I've got to continue to stay positive with this group," said Barbee, who signed a contract this week that runs through June 2017. "This is a group that can get down on itself quickly, as individuals and as a collective whole. As a staff, we're trying to stay extremely positive and keep it upbeat and let them know that they won't hit every shot. We've got to do a better job of locking in and not letting offense affect our defense."
Junior guard Frankie Sullivan, mired in a puzzling scoring slump, says the Tigers have to heed the words of their coaches and focus hard on defense. From defense, he says, will come offense and a way out of the scoring wilderness.
"Playing great defense is going to have to be our mentality, because we can't score right now," Sullivan said. "We're not good scorers right now at this point in time. Defense is going to have to be our main priority."
The Tigers will need a lot of it tonight against the Wildcats, averaging 80.9 points per game. It's a significant night for Barbee, who played or Kentucky coach John Calipari at UMass and helped him build a championship program in six seasons as his assistant at Memphis.
Kentucky starts three freshmen and has four freshmen in it top seven. Of course, all those freshmen are considered future NBA players.
“When I watch his teams, nothing surprises me because I played for him and obviously worked for him for a bunch of years," Barbee said. "He has done with this team what he has done with all of his teams. He gets them to play as hard as any team in the country, and he gets them to play as unselfishly as any team in the country. When you have the kind of talent playing that way, it makes it hard.
"It impresses me every year because it is one of the two hardest things to get your team to do, to play extremely hard, as hard as they can possibly play, and extremely unselfish when most of today's players are in it for themselves. He gets his really talented guys to play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back of the jersey."
As daunting as the task may be, Barbee says he expects the Tigers to come to play tonight. They are, after all, on 10-game home winning streak dating back to last season.
Senior forward has the first triple-double in school history in Auburn's last game at home, a 67-41 drubbing of Bethune-Cookman. He leads the team with 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per game. Sullivan averages 11.5 points per game and Chris Denson 10.7.
"The catalysts understand that they have to play better," Barbee said. That's why you're a catalyst. When it comes time where we're in a little bit of a drought, you've got to step up and take over. Right now, we're not doing that."
Six Wildcats average double-figure points per game, led by sophomore guard Doron Lamb's 14.6 and freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's 13.6. Anthony Davis, a 6-foot-10 freshman center, averages 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per game.