The Tigers are 5-5 coming into the contest after defeating Tennessee Tech 81-62 on Tuesday night. That same night Winthrop played on the road vs. seventh-ranked Ohio State and gave the Buckeyes a good test before Ohio State pulled out a 66-55 victory.
Auburn's three-game winning streak coincides with the return of Denson to the lineup. The junior guard couldn't play until the grades from fall semester classes were finalized. He had to pass 19 hours to be eligible again and managed to take care of the assignment.
In addition to the improved record since Denson returned, Barbee notes his Tigers have played "a lot better" basketball.
"Chris Denson has a lot to do with that," the coach said. "He is one of those guys with swagger. He plays with a feeling that he is as good as anyone out there on the court and he wants to prove it.
Senior Rob Chubb said there is no doubt that Denson has provided a spark to the team. "It is great having him back out there," the senior said. "He gives us another offensive threat and another guard who can drive to the basket and collapse the defense.
"Chris can find an angle and get to the basket and score and create an ‘And-One' for us," Chubb added. "He can shoot the three, but if you get too close to him he can go right past the defender on the way to the basket."
Denson is effective at driving and scoring.
Barbee noted that others are stepping up and playing with high energy like Denson does. "I told the guys I saw a lot of emotion, I saw a lot of togetherness," Barbee said of Auburn's latest victory.
"I saw that the last three games," the coach added. "It is easy to do that when you are up 15 or 20. What about when you are in a dogfight? What about when you are down 10 with three minutes to go? Are you still going to be that way? That is what I am trying to get into these guys."
Immediately after Denson was declared eligible, Barbee put the junior left-hander into the starting lineup. Denson said he appreciates the vote of confidence. Barbee points out that Denson had been looking good in practice so it made sense to insert the junior into the starting five of a team that needed an offensive spark.
Denson scored 20 points on Tuesday night and is averaging 16.7 points per game thanks to 63 percent shooting from the field.
The junior guard said he has had no problem getting back into the swing of things despite missing the two exhibition contests and the first seven regular season games.
"I do feel right at home," he pointed out. "It all started during the practices while I was out going against our senior guard Frankie (Sullivan) and guarding Josh (Wallace) and J.P. (Jordan Price)."
In those practices Denson showed improvements on defense, which Barbee noted had been the part of the guard's game that needed the most improvement the past two seasons. Barbee added that Denson has also improved offensively.
From watching the early season contests from the sidelines and studying video of those games, Denson was well aware the Tigers were struggling to score and needed his help. "I think we were just rushing shots," he pointed out.
The junior said if the good early shot isn't there during a possession the Tigers are willing to work longer to get a better look. "Nobody was being as patient as you see now," he said. "We kind of grind the clock out like at 15 (seconds on the shot clock) and we always run a ball screen for me, Frankie or Josh and just find an open man. If I see JP's man helping, I hit JP for the three and it keeps the offense flowing."
Since Denson has returned Price has gotten better looks at the basket and gotten on a hot streak with his shooting that includes 11 consecutive makes on three-point shots, which is four shy of the NCAA record.
Barbee said the hard work that Denson put into his game over the summer is showing up.
As a freshman Denson started three games and played in 17 others as he averaged 5.9 points per contest while making 42.2 percent of his field goals. As a sophomore he started eight games and played in 22 others as he averaged 8.7 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting.
Barbee notes that Denson is an important piece of the puzzle in putting together a successful season.
"I knew that this team was going to be better later with all of the new guys we needed to contribute," the coach stated. "With Chris being absent I knew we were going to be inconsistent. I needed these guys to get experience through the battle scars they got early.
"I knew we would be better in January than we would in late November and early December," he added. "I see this team advancing and taking steps, and that is all we want to do."