On the wings of a wild 77-71 overtime victory over longtime SEC foil Kentucky, Auburn is headed to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
To put into perspective of just how wild that previous line is, let’s look at two snapshots in recent history.
Nov. 22, 2017
It’s been two months since Auburn assistant Chuck Person was arrested by the FBI and hit with six federal charges of bribery, fraud and conspiracy. In the weeks since the FBI’s probe into college basketball rocked both the Tigers and college basketball on the whole, Auburn has put two other staffers on leave and suspended Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy indefinitely. The NCAA will ultimately rule that Purifoy and Wiley must sit out the entire 2017-18 season but can return in 2018-19.
Further complicating matters are reports that Bruce Pearl isn’t cooperating with Auburn’s internal investigation, and that as a result, he might be fired in the middle of the season. The comments of Auburn president Steven Leath on this day seem to back these reports up.
“There is no rush to judgement here and we have been working with the coach for weeks to find a solution to this difficult situation,” Leath wrote at the time. “Having three of his employees suspended or terminated is troublesome at best. His unwillingness to even talk to me about it is particularly troublesome.
”In addition I have many more facts than the fans and rest assured that I will make any decision based on facts, what is best for Auburn and not on emotion or perceptions from the past. I wish we were not in such a difficult situation, but we are, and Auburn will move past this regardless of the path chosen.”
From a purely basketball standpoint, things aren’t ideal either. Pearl’s first three years at Auburn had failed to produce a trip to the NCAA tournament or a finish better than 11th in the SEC. His Tigers, picked to finish ninth in the conference before the season, are off to a pedestrian 4-1 start that includes a 14-point loss to Temple in their only game against a quality opponent.
Auburn, of course, would go on to win a share of the SEC regular season title and earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Pearl, who had seemed to be on the brink of termination just months earlier, would be rewarded with a contract extension.
Feb. 14, 2019
The day after an embarrassing 60-55 home loss to Ole Miss, Auburn sits at 16-8 overall and just 5-6 in SEC play. There’s talk that the Tigers could miss the NCAA tournament.
This was supposed to be the greatest season in Auburn basketball history. Pearl had navigated his way through the FBI stuff, he’d returned the bulk of production from an SEC regular season co-champion, and he’d gotten both Purifoy and Wiley to return to school following their one year suspension. Now, a team that was ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP top 25 poll was already in a position where it felt like it was fighting for its “right side of the bubble” life.
Auburn rights the ship to a degree over the next three weeks. They win six of their final seven regular season games, including a monumental 84-80 win over Tennessee that deprives Pearl’s old school of an SEC title. Even so, they mostly beat up on the bottom of the conference over that time, and their one loss is an 80-53 walloping at the hands of Kentucky. They’re safely in the NCAA tournament, but an 11-7 league record means they won’t get a bye to the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. Most are expecting the Tigers to win a game or two in Nashville and then be a first weekend exit in the Big Dance.
What Happened Since
The most inexplicable snapshot of these three is the current one.
At some point over the last month, Auburn transformed from an underachieving major conference team destined for March disappointment to the Playoff Warriors.
The metamorphosis began in Nashville, where Auburn won four games in four days to capture its first SEC tournament title in 1985. In the championship game, the Tigers pasted a Tennessee team fighting for a No. 1 seed by a final score of 84-64.
The “they have to cool off at some point” continued to surround Auburn as the Tigers began their run in the NCAA tournament. They lit it up from the outside in wins over New Mexico State, Kansas and top-seeded North Carolina to set up Sunday’s showdown with Kentucky, a team that had already beaten them twice. Tipping the scales in the direction of the Wildcats making that number three was the fact that Chuma Okeke, arguably the team’s top performer in March, tore his ACL in the win over UNC.
And yet, after all of that, here Auburn is. Two wins away from a national championship for the first time in the 114-year history of the program.
Standing in the way of the Tigers’ run are now both Virginia’s vaunted pack line defense and a bit of history. A No. 5 seed is the only 1-8 seed that has never won a national championship. Five-seeds have made six (now seven) trips to the Final Four and three appearances in the national title game, but have never cut down the nets.
For an Auburn program that has been up against it throughout both its distant and recent past, another seemingly negative sign for the future might actually be comforting.