- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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When it comes to Auburn basketball, that (above) is usually the case. The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just eight times in school history, the most recent of which came in 2003. Not that most Auburn fans have noticed. Even the most noteworthy hoops alumni -- NBA legend Charles Barkley -- spends most of his Auburn-related "Inside the NBA" shout-outs flinging smack about college football. (Save for his classic story about once playing against an 18-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, followed by him making a call to Nike and telling them to tell Dirk that Barkley would give the German "anything he [wanted]" to come play to Auburn. Oh, what could have been.)
Point is, the history of Auburn basketball is not exactly glittering. And even so, things have rarely looked quite so bad.
Early Thursday morning, Lee County, Ala., sheriff's officers arrested Auburn guard Shaquille Johnson and charged him with second degree marijuana possession, a Lee County Sheriff's Office spokesman confirmed to ESPN.com Thursday afternoon. (The news was first reported by CBS Sports' Gary Parrish.) Later Thursday, Auburn coach Tony Barbee announced in a statement that Johnson had been dismissed for a violation of team rules:
"We hold our student-athletes to a high standard at Auburn University in the way that they conduct themselves off the court," head coach Tony Barbee said. "I am very disappointed in Shaq's choices and actions, and they won't be tolerated. This decision is not one that I take lightly, but it is in the best interest of both the program and the student-athlete."
This news -- that a mostly unknown Auburn player was dismissed following a misdemeanor drug arrest -- would be relatively minor if not for a couple of extenuating circumstances.
The first is that Johnson was, at least by Auburn's standards, a massively important player. He entered college ranked 99th in the 2012 ESPN 100, the second-best asset alongside No. 61-ranked guard Jordan Price and IMG College postgraduate Brian Greene. Over the next few years, that class was supposed to make Barbee's team competitive again, if not immediately, then at the very least gradually. The former didn't come to pass -- Auburn went 9-23 in 2012-13 and finished No. 194 in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings -- and the latter is no longer an option. Both Price and Greene left Auburn in April and May, respectively. Now, after just one (abysmal) season, all three are gone, and the large class slated to replace them doesn't comprise anything remotely resembling the 2012 group's talent or pedigree.
The second circumstance is more general. From our ESPN News report:
Johnson is the 12th player who has transferred or left Auburn under Tony Barbee since Decemeber 2010, a list which includes Varez Ward, who was charged with point shaving, and Jerome Seagears, who was at Auburn for three weeks this past spring before going back to Rutgers.
Even if you set the point-shaving mess aside, that is still a massive number of players that have left the program for one reason or another in less than four years. Rebuilding at a place like Auburn requires at least some measure of stability. You need solid-if-overlooked recruits to blossom into four-year program ambassadors. You need those old coaching buzzwords, which are buzzwords for good reason. Foundation. Culture. Belief. At the bare minimum, you need your most talented guys to not leave in droves for one reason or another. At a place like Auburn, you don't have to make a splash. It doesn't even matter if you go 9-23, as long you're clearly, if slowly, improving. But going 9-23 before this offseason? That's, um, not good.
No one ever said Barbee's rebuilding project would be easy. Auburn is Auburn, after all. But even if you grade Barbee on the most generous possible curve, the Tigers still aren't passing.