Tony Barbee found himself last week facing one of those tough decisions that forces coaches to earn their paycheck.
Chris Denson and Jordan Price, two vital players to Auburn’s offense who were both missing games with stress fractures in their feet, were cleared by doctors to play. Both told Barbee they were ready to play. Barbee made the call, inserting them in the lineup Saturday against Kentucky.
After watching the past two games, Barbee said Thursday that Denson and Price returned prematurely.
“I probably shouldn’t have played them these last two games,” Barbee said. “They’re saying they’re ready, but as I watch them on tape they weren’t ready physically in just terms of being in-game sharp, ready. So, probably, I should have stayed with the lineup that we had been going with.”
That lineup led Auburn to a 2-0 SEC start with wins against LSU and South Carolina, then a double-overtime loss at Arkansas. Beating the Razorbacks would’ve given the Tigers two road wins in the conference and continued their best SEC start in a decade.
Now, Auburn has lost three straight.
Denson and Price struggled since their return, combining for 4 points in limited playing time. Denson’s lack of production has been especially troubling.
When Denson returned from academic ineligibility after missing the season’s first seven games, Auburn instantly became dangerous. The Tigers’ offense found more balance and explosiveness. Denson became Auburn’s second-leading scorer with 15.2 points per game.
Since returning from his four-game absence, Denson scored 1 point on 0-of-8 shooting. More than 3 points per game have been shaved from his scoring average.
“It’s hard to ride a bike for five weeks and step off of it and act like you’re not going to miss a beat,” Barbee said.
Sounds logical. It hasn’t made Denson’s sluggish play any less frustrating.
Standing with his back against the wall outside Auburn’s locker room Wednesday night after the Tigers’ loss at Vanderbilt, Denson couldn’t hide his disappointment. He said the team “got punked” against the Commodores.
His inability to help only made it worse.
“I can’t move like I want to, I can’t attack the rim like I want to,” Denson said. “… I feel it every time I go to the hole.”
Denson said he only feels 80 percent healthy. In theory, it’s good enough for Denson to make a difference on the court. Surely Barbee thought the same before inserting the junior.
So far, it hasn’t.
“It’s been the most frustrating year for me playing basketball,” Denson said. “Missing (seven) games for ineligibility at the beginning of the season, then come back and playing good ball at a high level and come back with a stress fracture. But, you know, everything happens for a reason.”
Despite the problems Auburn has had plugging Denson and Price back into the rotation, Barbee said nothing will change. His focus is on March more than it is on Saturday’s game against No. 23 Ole Miss.
If the Tigers struggle as much as they did the past two games, it will be difficult for them to beat the Rebels with Denson and Price on the court. But, Auburn can’t have the success it expected at the beginning of SEC play without Denson and Price healthy and contributing.
For Barbee, the tough decisions continue.
“We’re going to continue to go with them,” Barbee said. “That’s the only way you get them back. Like I told them, those guys, now that they’re off the bike, still got to be sensitive with where their injury is. They’ve got to find a way to do extra outside of what we’re doing practice-wise this time of the year to get themselves back. That’s on them. We need them to be effective.”
Rob Chubb talks to the media Thursday afternoon
Ryan Wood is the Auburn University Sports Beat Writer for the Opelika-Auburn News.
Follow on Twitter @aublog