Even though Auburn finished 4-12 in the SEC this season and suffered some exasperating non-conference losses, first-year coach Tony Barbee has impressed his peers simply by helping the talent-starved Tigers remain competitive.
In fact, Kentucky coach John Calipari went so far as to suggest Monday that his former assistant coach at Memphis would be his choice for SEC coach of the year.
"Every game they've played, they've had a chance to win," Calipari said on a conference call with reporters. "To be down 20 and come back and win games or have a chance to win, that's what coaching is. I just think he's done wonders, and I believe he should be considered coach of the year. You've got some haters out there, who've got their personal problems, that will make jokes about it. But they don't know what coaching is. I think he should be considered."
The notion that Barbee should be considered alongside the likes of Florida's Billy Donovan or Alabama's Anthony Grant is certainly far-fetched, but Calipari's praise is not entirely unwarranted either.
A youthful Auburn team that lost to the likes of Campbell, Samford and Presbyterian in the preseason improved to the point where it escaped the basement in the SEC West and stayed within single digits in six of its 12 SEC losses. In their past four games, the Tigers lost by a combined four points to Alabama and Arkansas and then rallied from 20 points down against Ole Miss and 15 down at LSU to close the regular season on a win streak.
Nobody asked Barbee specifically about Calipari's praise, but the Auburn coach spoke at length about the improvement of his team and the how rewarding it was for the Tigers to taste victory twice last week.
"It was fun to watch the reaction from the kids," Barbee said. "The biggest thing is these guys have given me everything they've got and they've done everything I've asked all year long. That's why I always talk about this being probably the funnest and most rewarding year I've had as a coach. Obviously that doesn't reflect in wins, but this year, more than anything, was about building for what's to come."