The Tony Barbee Era got off to an awful start for Auburn last season as the team suffered embarrassing home losses to low-majors UNC-Asheville, Samford, Campbell, Jacksonville and Presbyterian before SEC play even tipped off. Rome was not built in one day and neither will this basketball program, but the Tigers should be slightly more competitive this season.
While the Tigers lose three players to transfer including leading scorer and rebounder Earnest Ross, they also welcome in a pair of transfers who should make significant impacts in their first year of being eligible at Auburn. Former Texas combo guard Varez Ward has only played in three games the past two seasons after sitting out last year and suffering a season-ending ruptured quadriceps tendon in 2009-10, but he should add stability to the backcourt.
The athletic Noel Johnson comes in from Clemson but will not be eligible until after the first semester. He figures to battle for minutes on the wing with Josh Langford, who suffered through a disappointing freshman campaign.
Point guard Frankie Sullivan will add to that improved backcourt after missing all but six games a season ago due to a knee injury. Even though he is more of a scorer than true floor general, Sullivan's return at the point will be welcomed for a team that finished 300th out of 346 Division I teams in assists. Chris Denson, Allen Payne, Tony Neysmith and freshman Cedrick McAfee give Barbee plenty of options with his backcourt depth; a luxury he did not have last season after Andre Malone chose to transfer.
The frontcourt will look fairly similar to last year which isn't necessarily an encouraging sign. Kenny Gabriel, Robb Chubb and Adrian Forbes are back for another go-around while freshmen Willy Kouassi and Bernard Morena will try to work themselves into the mix.
On paper, Auburn looks like an improved team from a year ago. However, they figure to be battling with LSU to stay out of the cellar of what should once again be a competitive SEC.
Player to Watch: Varez Ward, G
Despite only being a sophomore eligibility-wise, Ward is entering his fourth year of college basketball. He started the first three games for a very talented Texas team in 2009 before suffering a season-ending injury and then sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. He was not much of a three-point shooter in his first season-plus with the Longhorns but will give Barbee another player who can handle the rock and facilitate the offense. The combination of Ward and Sullivan in the backcourt should provide a need upgrade considering walk-on Josh Wallace was forced to play heavy minutes last season due to injuries and transfer.
Key Non-Conference Games:
12/2 at Seton Hall (SEC/Big East Invitational)
12/22, 23, 25 vs. Clemson, Kansas State, Xavier, UTEP, Long Beach State, Southern Illinois, or Hawaii (Diamond Head Classic)