— AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Frankie Sullivan will leave Auburn having endured one of the worst stretches in program history but said he still believes that coach Tony Barbee can turn the Tigers' fortunes around.
The senior guard did offer a caveat on Monday.
"Most definitely he can do it," Sullivan said. "It's just coming together. People have to buy in to what he's trying to preach. He's a guy, he's an emotional coach, and everybody knows that. I think once he gets the players in this year to come back in the summer and work hard like they did last summer, it's going to progress. You've just got to be able to deal with his style of play and his coaching. I think he's going to most definitely turn it around."
The Tigers (9-22, 3-15 Southeastern Conference) head into Wednesday night's opening round SEC tournament matchup with Texas A&M having lost 15 of 16 games, the worst stretch in 67 years, and nine straight.
It's been the lowest point of Barbee's three-year tenure, which has been marred by player defections, two 20-loss seasons and now a last-place league finish.
Even though Barbee, Sullivan and Chris Denson express optimism that Auburn can make some kind of SEC tournament run, there haven't been many signs on the court of that potential.
Auburn fell to the last-place finish with an overtime road loss to 13th-place finisher Mississippi State to close the regular season.
The Tigers have had a mix of blowout losses and single-digit defeats — sometimes to the same team — during this stretch.
It has left Barbee with a 35-58 record and 12 SEC wins in 50 tries nearing the end of his third season. He said athletic director Jay Jacobs hasn't discussed the state of the program and just asked him about the Texas A&M game in their latest conversation.
Jacobs wasn't available for comment on Barbee's status on Monday, and typically doesn't discuss such matters until after the season.
He preached patience in a Feb. 5 email to members of Tigers Unlimited, the athletic department's fundraising arm.
"Coach Barbee recently said we have to change the culture to elevate our program to a new level," Jacobs wrote. "History says he is right,"
Barbee, whose $1.5 million-a-year deal runs through June of 2017, said the struggles haven't dampened his enthusiasm.
"Nothing's changed. I feel the exact same way," said Barbee, whose buyout would more than $3 million. "Excited about the foundation that these seniors have left, going forward. Excited about the young guys that we've got in the program and what they've learned and how they've learned under fire this year, which is going to make them more prepared coming back as sophomores, and excited about the group that we've got incoming. It's another group that just knows winning."
Barbee must replace seniors Sullivan, the leading scorer, top rebounder Rob Chubb, point guard Josh Wallace and reserve forward Noel Johnson.
He has already signed 7-foot high school prospects Ronald Delph of Winter Haven, Fla., and Benas Griciunas of powerhouse Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., and point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen.
Plus, Virginia transfer point guard KT Harrell — a 20-game starter over two seasons — is sitting out after transferring.
The most experienced returnees are Denson and Allen Payne.
Keeping the roster intact has been a challenge. Six of the eight high school signees from Barbee's two seasons have either opted to leave or been dismissed, including four who didn't return this season.
Two years ago, top scorer and rebounder Earnest Ross transferred to Missouri.
Denson said he hasn't heard any talk about leaving in the locker room. He and Sullivan both said one problem has been players buying into what Barbee preaches and dealing with his sometimes blunt manner.
"He's a great coach and people just weren't buying in to what he was saying, but I think that all comes to maturity," Denson said. "We've got a lot of young guys on the team so we're looking to build that up next year."
Then again, there's no sugarcoating the present.
"It's been worse than what the numbers indicate for us, especially when you're used to winning or you want to win so badly," Sullivan said. "Nobody wants to be in last place, but it is what it is. Now we've got to go into the SEC Tournament and play our hearts out."