Category archive: Auburn Tigers

Connecticut is putting on the full-court press to join the ACC in case the league decides to expand again. And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina coach Roy Williams both told ESPN.com they would like to see the league eventually go to 16 teams, with two eight-team divisions.

But there is no sense of urgency in the ACC, especially since the Big East for the moment is making Pitt and Syracuse stay for 27 months per the league's bylaws. The conference has plenty of time to figure out how to schedule its 14-team league.

So the attention now returns to the SEC with Monday's official announcement that Texas A&M will join the conference for the 2012-13 season. That gives the league 13 teams.

Should there be more?

Like Krzyzewski and Williams, Kentucky coach John Calipari would eventually like to see his conference get to 16.

"I don't think this stuff is done yet," Calipari said. "I've said for months that there may be four conferences with 16 or 18 teams each. But I can tell you that the SEC at 13, 14 or 16 is going to be stable. We're fine. If they're going to add, I'd like us to go and get Virginia Tech, Maryland and Missouri to go along with Texas A&M. We're not going to do anything at the expense of academics. You're also going to see basketball step up in the next five years in the SEC."

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John Calipari
Howard Smith/US PresswireJohn Calipari would like to see the SEC add Missouri, Virginia Tech and Maryland.

Calipari tweeted Monday that he thought the move to add the Aggies was tremendous for the league and new coach Billy Kennedy, a native of SEC country (Louisiana).

"Texas A&M is a great school academically, has a well-run athletic department and will fit well," Calipari said. "Their fan base is ridiculous, just like all of us. The SEC is different. The SEC is about schools with strong fan bases and geography. We want the markets. There is no buyout in the SEC because no one wants to leave."

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he would have been fine with the SEC staying put at 12 teams, but he's not against the expansion.

"I like the simplicity of an even number and I'm not sure it was completely necessary," Stallings said. "I don't think we're finished seeing movement and if so, if we end up at 14 or 16, if that's what the commissioner's office said we need, then I'm fine with it. Our league isn't going anywhere. We're as stable as any league in college athletics and we have visionaries who run our league. If they think we're better suited to be at 14 or 16, then I'm OK with that."

The SEC will run into issues on further expansion since it would be hard to take a team from a state where there is already a conference member. The new ACC buyout of up to $20 million poses a problem, too. But the new markets in new states is what Calipari was talking about when he rattled off Missouri, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Still, it would be extremely difficult to pry the Terrapins away from playing Duke and North Carolina every year or the Hokies from rival Virginia after Tech expended a lot of political capital with the Cavaliers to not block the school's move from the Big East to the ACC eight years ago.

The SEC's current number of 13 will be a scheduling issue for football and basketball. Football still has divisions, which is a matter unto itself as the league decides what to do with the Aggies and how to handle an unbalanced schedule.

The SEC got rid of divisions for men's basketball for this season, but the scheduling format still mirrors the football East-West split with each team playing its old side twice and the other once for the 2011-12 season.

Stallings was on an SEC committee to determine a 12-team, no-division schedule for 2012-13. The consensus was to have everyone play each other once (11 games), with seven more games coming from doubling up against league opponents to get to 18 league games. The SEC currently plays 16. The same formula is expected to be applied to a 13-team, no-division SEC next season. The Atlantic 10, which has 14 teams, has a format of playing only 16 league games with every team playing each other at least once, three teams twice.

The question for the SEC will be which rivalries are protected in a doubling-up scenario. There are a few natural ones to protect like Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Vanderbilt-Tennessee with newer ones like Kentucky-Florida and maybe more traditional ones like Tennessee-Kentucky or Florida-Georgia kept, as well. There could be a need to ensure Texas A&M plays LSU twice as well, or perhaps twice with Arkansas, a former rival from the Southwest Conference.

Whatever the case, Stallings doesn't seem all that worried.

"I think we just have to have an open mind going forward," he said. "We'll come to the best concept relative to 13."

Had the NCAA tournament been extended to 68 teams in 2009 instead of 2011, would Jeff Lebo still be at Auburn?

Possibly. The Tigers won 10 SEC games, had a top seed in the SEC tournament, beat Florida in the first round of the conference tournament (for their ninth win in 10 games) and had 22 wins overall before losing to Tennessee.

Despite that, the Tigers' résumé was soft without major nonconference wins. But if the selection committee had been looking for three more at-large schools, would Auburn have had a case?

"We had to be one of the first ones out," Lebo said. "We were a No. 1 seed in the NIT. But it's hard to tell. I've always said there are three things that can signal the death of a coach: a new AD, a new president and a new arena. I had all three."

And after failing to make the NCAA tournament again in what was his fifth season -- despite winning 24 games, tied for second-most in school history -- Lebo had to produce in his sixth season. The Tigers finished 15-17 overall, 6-10 in the SEC, and Lebo was out.

He would have opened Auburn's new arena this fall against his alma mater, North Carolina. According to Lebo, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said the game was contingent on Lebo being the head coach. Instead, Lebo is at East Carolina, in what has become one of the more irrelevant programs in Conference USA.

Of course, Lebo isn't looking at it that way. He says he's fortunate to have landed in a good place and was never anxious about being out of work, since the call from ECU athletic director Terry Holland (who once recruited him to Virginia) came within days of his Auburn exit.

"Who knows what would have happened at Auburn?" Lebo said. "I think that team deserved to be in the NCAA tournament. It was disappointing."

Of all the coaches who will begin the 2010-11 season in a new place, Lebo is an example of one who won't shy away from a challenge.

Give him some credit here: He doesn't seem to mind a tough gig. The former Tar Heel led Tennessee Tech to a 27-win season and an NIT appearance in 2002 before embarking on a two-year stint at Chattanooga. While it didn't produce an NCAA tournament berth, his reputation as an ethical coach and his strong ties to the North Carolina family tree certainly helped him land at Auburn in 2004, a team with a thin record of success in the SEC.

Now he's at ECU. The Pirates have been to two NCAA tournaments in their history. The most recent one was in 1993, and that was a team that won only four games in the Colonial Athletic Association but earned a berth by winning the conference tournament title.

Going to ECU makes loads of sense, especially for Lebo's family. His wife, Melissa, is from the area, and his father-in-law played football at ECU. Lebo is still a recognizable name in North Carolina and has plenty of connections in the state.

He was hardly in a position to be selective. But he has an athletic director that he knows and respects in Holland. And in a league like C-USA that is constantly searching for an identity, there is hope that he can move the program upward.

"People tell me why can't you do it," Lebo said. "But I'm interested in finding ways to get it done. We're moving in the right direction, and we've seen it happen in football and baseball, so why not in men's basketball?"

Lebo isn't hung up on the fact that he helped push for the new arena at Auburn, was present as contractors and builders put the shovels into the ground yet won't be around to coach the Tigers in their new digs. That honor will go to his replacement, former UTEP coach Tony Barbee. Lebo said politely that maybe one day he'll take ECU to play in the arena.

North Carolina is no longer going to play Auburn now that Lebo is no longer the Tigers' coach. Coincidentally, Lebo said he had a deal for Williams to bring Kansas to Chattanooga for a game before he left the Jayhawks for North Carolina. Lebo said he hasn't broached the subject of the Tar Heels playing at ECU with Williams, but he's convinced he will at some point.

Ken Potosnak, Lebo's assistant at Auburn, came with him to East Carolina. He said Lebo's character and integrity are integral to why he will succeed.

"Jeff has won at every stop," Potosnak said. "Right now we have to change the climate and the environment here. This hasn't been a household name."

Hardly. Expectations are low outside of ECU. The Pirates finished with four wins in C-USA play last season, 10 overall. Leading scorer Brock Young is back as a senior to lead ECU. So at least there is an anchor to lead the team for Lebo.

But the truth is, he is modeling his plans more on surprising mid-level programs than on the upper echelon. That's realistic.

"Northern Iowa was at this point so you can see it happen at places like that, like Butler, like George Mason," Lebo said. "We're an under-the-radar program. It is hard. But it just takes a few guys and momentum. We've got decent pieces here. We think we can do it with the right personnel. If we can get some kids, get confidence and have success early, we can turn the corner quickly."