Jeff Lebo considered all the pluses and negatives when he was hired as Auburn's new head coach. There was NCAA probation, but no postseason ban. There was a losing conference record, but the leading scorers and rebounders were returning. There weren't any experienced underclassmen, but the upperclassmen were set to carry the day.
Lebo would, he reasoned, simply play this somewhat difficult hand and move on.
But then somebody made it harder. They stole all his kings, jacks and aces.
Lebo heads into his first season at Auburn with a team devoid of height, limited in experience and with almost no bench because of the decision of four veterans to transfer. Those moves have left the former Chattanooga head coach with the challenge of turning around a program with a roster of 10 guards and two forwards and no experienced player taller than 6-foot-6.
"We're going to be awfully little. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out," said Lebo.
It will play out without starting forward Marco Killingsworth and starting point guard Lewis Monroe, both of whom decided to transfer to Indiana. The only returning big guy, Dwayne Curtis, transferred to Ole Miss to join assistant coach and mentor Tracy Dildy. Second-leading scorer and starting forward Brandon Robinson also left the team.
What's left for Auburn are a lot of shooters, albeit small ones. At least they're guys who already play in Lebo's uptempo style.
FRONTCOURTFrontcourt? What frontcourt? Auburn almost certainly will have to start four guards -- at least, guards by most definitions -- and find a couple of players to act like forwards.
The tallest returning player is 6-6 Quinnel Brown, whose strength is an outside game. The tallest newcomer is 6-11 Ryan Daniel, but Lebo concedes his contributions will be limited, at least early. Daniel is coming from a private school league in Tennessee, and his style is more the finesse game of a European player rather than the physical battles often seen in the SEC.
Auburn desperately will miss Killingsworth, Robinson, Curtis and departed senior Kyle Davis in the middle. Those four scored almost all of Auburn's inside points, grabbed almost all of Auburn's rebounds and blocked almost all of Auburn's shots last year. Nobody left on the roster even came close.
"Everywhere else I've been we could play big or we could play small, depending on the game situation. We're not going to be able to do that here," said Lebo.
BACKCOURTWhat more could guards ask for than a coach who wants them to run, shoot and not be bothered with an inside game? "We want to be exciting," Lebo said. "We want to get up and down the court in a hurry."
Look for guard Ian Young to lead that charge. Young was a shooter last year, and he could develop in a prolific scorer, if only by default. He led Auburn in 3-pointers while averaging 10.0 points per game last season. Nathan Watson, an underrated defender, averaged 7.5 points but will be asked to do more this year. Ronny LeMelle had hot streaks last season and will be given a chance to be even hotter this season.
The wildcard in the backcourt could be 6-1 freshman Toney Douglas, Auburn's most high-profile signee. He averaged 27 points per game as a high school senior and arrived at Auburn over the summer ready to contribute.
FINAL ANALYSISAuburn had high hopes last year when it returned four starters from a team that went to the Sweet 16. But the Tigers struggled and coach Cliff Ellis was fired, partly because of his record, but more likely because the program had become so unbalanced. Auburn doesn't have a single sophomore or junior on scholarship this season. Lebo promises to straighten that out, but it's going to take time. His uptempo style and positive attitude may at least get the fans back in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
"We've gotten punched in the eye a little bit, but the Auburn people are resilient and love it here," Lebo said. "They want to see us do well. Hopefully, we can put all of this behind us and focus on the future. Any time there is a transition, there are going to be bumps in the road and things are going to happen. There's going to be some uncomfortable things. That's just part of it."