It was a sad way to end a sorry season. Auburn wasn’t very good before the FBI showed up. With all the distractions, the Tigers (15-15, 5-11 SEC) should be commended for keeping it close, only losing 68-54 to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament.
With the win, a slow-motion affair in front of a sparse crowd (without the Kentucky fans, the SEC tournament often looks like a Jaycee Tipoff Classic) Ole Miss’s hope for an NCAA tournament bid remains faint but glowing. Auburn goes nowhere but home, the smell of scandal lingering in their wake.
For those who haven’t heard: Yahoo! Sports reported that the FBI has been investigating suspended Auburn guard Varez Ward since late February over allegations of point shaving. Auburn confirmed the accusations and the investigation, but little else. In a statement, the school said: “Auburn officials were made aware of a rumor regarding an allegation two weeks ago and immediately reported it to the FBI, the NCAA and the SEC. Because of the nature of the allegation, Auburn is not in a position to make any further comment on the situation.”
Sports bribery and conspiracy to commit sports bribery (18 U.S.C. ss 224) are federal crimes punishable by fines and possible jail time. Because of that, no one involved with the university in any capacity will utter a peep on this until the investigation is concluded.
It’s a familiar spot for Auburn. During their 2010 National Championship run the FBI and NCAA questioned a lot of people about Cam Newton. Newton and the university were cleared of any wrongdoing, and fans continued to rally around their football program.
This one seems different. Ward and fellow guard Chris Denson were suspended before a Feb. 25 home game against Arkansas. Both were questioned. Denson was cleared and reinstated right after the Arkansas loss, but the questioning of Ward and other teammates who might have known about possible wrongdoing continues.
With that news breaking early on Thursday, the Tigers looked like they had all gone a few rounds in an MMA ring before taking the floor in the Super Dome against the Rebels. Both teams played sloppy basketball, but Ole Miss scraped and clawed well enough to put this one away midway through the second half.
Nick Williams caught fire from the outside for the Rebels, finishing with 22 points, 15 in the second half, including four 3-pointers. Murphy Holloway played solid inside, putting up 13 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one blocked shot.
But they might as well have been playing the little sisters of the poor. Slump-shouldered, addled and doddering, the Tigers looked dejected and defeated when the game was tied. If Ole Miss hadn’t gotten foul happy in the second half, this bloodletting could have been over a lot sooner.
Frankie Sullivan led the Tigers with 15 points, but senior Kenny Gabriel kept the game respectable in the second half with three 3-pointers in 13 brief minutes on the floor. He added one more two-pointer to his total, but it was far too little and woefully too late.
After the game, Auburn coach Tony Barbee opened his press conference by saying: “Obviously because of the nature of the allegations and the story, and because of the statement, I won’t be able to elaborate or answer any questions or make any further comment other than that I totally support the statement that the university has made.”
He then went on to the typical “our guys fought hard,” and “couldn’t get into a rhythm” bromides.
Anthony Kennedy shouldn’t get too peppy. His team let a Tiger squad that could have easily walked on as extras in “The Walking Dead” hang within 5-10 points a lot longer than reason and postseason discipline should allow. Even when the Rebels had it in hand, they played school-yard slap-and-grab with Auburn ball handlers, stopping the clock and dragging the inevitable out one long drip at a time.
If Ole Miss plays against Tennessee the way they did against the Tigers, the Rebs will spend the weekend in Oxford and the rest of the postseason watching March Madness on TV.
“It was a grind,” Kennedy said. “Every game is. We did a lot of things that we’re going to have to improve upon tomorrow night in order for us to advance. But the one area that allowed us to win the game was we were dominant on the glass. We had 19 offensive rebounds and we were plus-14. We did a good job with second-chance points. And Nick (Williams) really carried us offensively in the second half, which allowed us to get the separation we needed to advance.”
Auburn isn’t advancing, although at this point going home with a disappointing record and a snub on Selection Sunday would be like lilacs and pudding for the Tigers. A toxic cloud is descending on the shiny new stadium on the plains. So far, just as they did with Newton, administrators have handled this by the books. And, just as they did in the fall of 2010, they have buttoned up the chit chat.
“Everything off the court is off the court,” Frankie Sullivan said. “Everybody has their problems. So we just came in with the mindset of trying to win a ball game.”
If the Ward mess is resolved quickly and the FBI agents leave campus without an arrest, the Tigers have a chance to put the whole sordid thing behind them. But if it drags into spring, a program that wasn’t very good on the court this season could find itself seriously wounded for some time to come.