SEC: Auburn showing signs of progress in 3-game streak

BY JOHN ZENOR AP SPORTS WRITER AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Auburn had easily won three straight nonconference games when Winthrop came for a visit in late December. The Tigers weren't too worried about that game, which they wound up losing in a lackluster performance that seemed to help spark a turnaround.
"Everybody just walked in planning what they were doing after this," center Rob Chubb said. "We were out of the mind-set of basketball. "Winthrop was kind of a shock, so all of a sudden everybody was starting to come together." Auburn (8-7, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) responded with a near-miss in an 81-79 loss to No. 23 Illinois in Chicago, and has since won three straight games even with No. 2 scorer Chris Denson and 3-point threat Jordan Price sidelined with foot injuries. The Tigers hadn't started 2-0 in SEC play since Cliff Ellis' 2002-03 team that won two games in the NCAA tournament. Auburn hasn't been back in the NCAA field since then, and would need quite a surprising run through the SEC to make it this season. The Tigers have shown signs of progress lately, though. This week will supply another measuring stick of how far Auburn has really come this season. The Tigers visit Arkansas Wednesday night and host defending national champion Kentucky three days later. Auburn won just nine SEC games in coach Tony Barbee's first two seasons, and didn't win two in a row last season. They have beaten Florida State, LSU and South Carolina during this span - teams with a combined 29-15 record - after trailing by one point at halftime in all three. "It's just like all of a sudden it clicked," Chubb said. "All of the guys all of a sudden started pulling in the same direction. We had a couple of guys just kind of dazed, looking around. Then all of a sudden it just all clicked and the chemistry came together and guys started picking up what they hadn't been picking up in the past, and it's been paying off." Barbee said signs of a turnaround didn't emerge in any game. "It was how we were performing and how we were competing in practice," he said. "Even though we didn't get the results that we wanted out of our nonconference schedule - we were a little inconsistent - I saw how hard these guys were working in practice and how together they were. "The older guys helping these young guys because they knew that we needed them for us to go on a little bit of a run. I knew it would come at some point. We're still not there, we've got a long ways to go." Barbee said the biggest change has been the emergence of freshmen like Brian Greene Jr. and Shaquille Johnson. Greene, who is subbing for Denson, is only averaging 2.8 points a game but had a season-high 14 at South Carolina and is 8-for-8 shooting the past two games. Johnson managed career-highs of 11 points and nine rebounds against LSU. Barbee said there's no timetable for the return of Denson or Price, each out with stress fractures. Chubb thinks their return will provide a sizable boost offensively for a team that has shot 52 percent from the floor in its first two SEC games even without them. Denson is scoring 15.2 points a game and has missed the last three. Price, who has been out for four games, has hit 53 percent of his 3-pointers. "Once we get them back, it's going to be real trouble for other teams because they can put up points very quickly," Chubb said. Veterans Chubb, Sullivan and Allen Payne have made sizable statistical leaps this season along with Denson. Sullivan is the SEC's No. 2 scorer at 17.2 points a game while Chubb is collecting 9.7 points and 7.6 rebounds. Payne has nearly doubled his scoring average, from 4.3 points to 8.4 points. Now, the freshmen are chipping in more, too. "It's a lot of different things that are starting to come together," Barbee said. © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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