AUBURN, Ala. -- Tony Barbee was a little surprised to hear from his mentor Thursday after taking the job as Auburn's coach.
After all, Kentucky coach John Calipari was right where Barbee hopes to get the Tigers: Preparing for a big NCAA tournament game with a championship program. He isn't shy about expressing those ambitions.
"We're going right after Kentucky," Barbee said, "and we're going right after coach Calipari."
The former UTEP coach also knows he has a long way to go to catch Calipari & Co., who won the Southeastern Conference title and were playing Cornell in the tournament a few hours after Barbee's formal introduction at Auburn.
He is taking over a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in seven years and has had a winning mark in the SEC only once in the past decade. The Tigers also return only one key contributor, starting guard Frankie Sullivan.
But Barbee has enjoyed plenty of success with Calipari and beyond, leading the Miners to a Conference USA regular-season title and their first NCAA tournament since 2005 in his fourth season.
He played and coached under Calipari at UMass and spent six seasons as one of his assistants at Memphis. UTEP finally managed to dislodge Memphis and win CUSA -- after Calipari left for Kentucky.
"There's one way you get to the top: You go after the people that are at the top, and right now that's where Kentucky sits," said Barbee, who received a six-year contract worth $1.5 million annually. "That was our challenge in Conference USA. And we didn't hesitate to go and get some players that I thought could have played at Memphis, could have played anywhere in any league in the country. That's why we had the success that we had this year, and finally overtook Memphis in Conference USA."
Barbee held his introductory news conference on the court at the $92 million Auburn Arena, which opens next season, with dozens of fans watching. He said the new building is a sign of the commitment to basketball from a school known primarily for football. Another was a salary that nearly doubled the $785,000 ousted coach Jeff Lebo made in his sixth season.
Barbee pledged to take the program "to heights it's never been before."
"We will play an exciting style of basketball, very exciting, very fun," he said. "It will be fun for the fans. It will be fun for the players. And it will do one thing that I know -- in my 19 years of college basketball, I've been to postseason play 18 of my 19 years.
"And I'm madder than heck of that one year we missed it. I still can't believe it."
That was his first year at UTEP when he won 14 games. This season, the Miners went 26-7 before losing to Butler in the tournament's first round. Like Calipari, Barbee's brand of basketball emphasizes a fast-paced style and high-pressure defense that generates much of the offense.
"One thing about this style I know is it is built to win in March," he said, "and I know that's what you all want."
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs met with Barbee on Tuesday morning in Atlanta and said he was sold quickly.
"The first few minutes of the interview -- it was unbelievable," Jacobs said. "You knew he was the right guy, the right fit for this basketball team.
"He knew so much about Auburn and what it was going to take to get us to compete for championships right off the bat. He talked about how he had done it in other places and take that plan and apply it to Auburn. He thought it was necessary to get the community behind this team."
Barbee said there had been "a disconnect" in recent years between the program and his job is "to rekindle that love affair."
Sullivan was already familiar with Barbee, who recruited him at both Memphis and UTEP. He said the Tigers' new coach expressed his ambitions in a meeting with the team Thursday afternoon.
"He just told us he was ready to instill his will on the team, his winning tradition on the team and we're going to make the postseason," Sullivan said.
Barbee pointed to the program's history that has had bright spots, including players like Chuck Person, Wesley Person and Charles Barkley.
"There is a precedent that has been set within this men's basketball program that it's been done before," he said. "And when you look at Auburn Arena, why can't it be done again? That's why I'm here."