I thought that everybody would like to take a stroll down memory lane as we reflect back on the incredible season Auburn Basketball just completed. As the game on Sunday was no longer in doubt, I couldn’t help but be proud of what this team accomplished. Their first SEC Championship since 1999, their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003, 26 wins, a win in the NCAA Tournament, and one of the country’s final 32 teams. Considering the lack of success that Auburn Basketball has had over the years, this was an amazing season. And yes, it’s taken me a few days to put this together because I wanted to make sure I did this team justice. They deserve that after the joy they’ve provided me and so many of you this season. There’s a lot to say about this team and as a result, I’ve written so much that I’ve decided to break this up into two parts. Today, we’ll go through the beginning of the season and through the first month of conference play. So as I begin I want to start by saying:
Thank you Auburn Basketball!
Thank you so much for everything that you guys achieved this season on and off the court. On the court, you are this year’s SEC Regular Season Champions and nobody can take that away from you. Off the court, you brought a fan base together which rallied around a sport that few people had bothered to or had reason to care about before this year or this decade for that matter.
I said this when I started writing this season but I love college basketball and wanted nothing more than for people in Auburn to fall in love with it as well. It was a dream of mine when I first arrived here in Spring 2015 that one day, Auburn Basketball would be relevant on this campus. That can be a challenge considering (stating the obvious), Auburn is football-first and the state of Alabama is all about football and while I love college football, college basketball is and will always be my favorite. Upon my arrival, Auburn Arena wasn’t exactly a hotbed for folks to come and watch college basketball. Bruce Pearl was in his 1st year here and had to pick up the pieces of a mess that was left by former coach Tony Barbee. It was rare for the arena to be completely full unless Kentucky or Alabama was in town. Even at the beginning of this season, you could walk into Auburn Arena about 15-20 minutes before tipoff and get a pretty good seat in the Jungle. (This obviously is and won’t be the case anymore.)
Speaking of Tony Barbee: He really showed his true colors with his tweet Sunday night didn’t he? I guarantee we won’t show him any mercy if he ever shows his face in Auburn again. All of this after Bruce Pearl asked the fanbase to keep it classy regarding Barbee’s return to Auburn for the first time on Valentine’s Day as an assistant at Kentucky.
— Tony Barbee (@CoachTonyBarbee) March 19, 2018
Bruce made sure to have a response for Barbee’s comments while appearing on Clay Travis talk show on Tuesday morning.
Get em coach!
Anyways, back on topic.
Let’s go back briefly to 2014-2015, Bruce inherited a team which struggled throughout the regular season but went on a great run through the SEC Tournament winning 3 games in 3 days before falling to undefeated Kentucky in the Semifinals. Bruce began to incorporate his style of play and began bringing in some of his players for Year Two (Bryce Brown, Horace Spencer). While progress was made, the results on the court didn’t really show it. Last year, Jared Harper, Mustapha Heron, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley arrived on campus and the team began to turn the corner a bit. There was talk of Auburn playing in the NIT before a season ending defeat to Missouri in the SEC Tournament ended that talk. Which leads us to this year.
I knew this team had potential. Austin Wiley was going to be the star on this team after getting a chance to enroll early and garner valuable SEC experience, while also playing for John Calipari and Team USA last summer. Heron, Harper, Brown, and Danjel Purifoy were poised to have better years and Bruce actually had a team that brought most of their players back for the first time since he’s been here. Then the FBI investigation was announced and assistant coach Chuck Person was implicated in it and eventually fired. In amidst all of this, it was determined that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy took impermissible benefits and Auburn did the proactive thing and suspended the players indefinitely. Neither saw the court for Auburn this year. After an exhibition loss to Barry, I don’t think a lot of people knew what to expect out of this team this year. It was even a question whether or not Bruce Pearl would still be the coach here as the season began. It’s safe to say there were a ton of questions surrounding this team as the season began.
Auburn Basketball started the year and went 12-1 in nonconference play, bringing some optimism to the program. An early observation I had of this team was the play of newcomer Desean Murray, who did a phenomenal job playing the 4 position despite only being 6’3 all season long. His ability to rebound was something Auburn had sorely missed over the past several years. Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore did a great job of stepping up for Wiley. McLemore eventually became the starting center while Horace provided a huge spark off the bench. Other newcomers: Malik Dunbar, Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell got valuable experience and learned what their roles would be on this team. Chuma has the potential to be a great stretch 4 and his ability to knock down 3-pointers is a valuable asset going forward. He showed flashes of that ability in his freshmen year and look for him to take a big step forward in his sophomore season. Dunbar was an energizer bunny who always seems to have fun on and off the court and provided some spectacular highlight reel plays. Mitchell gave Auburn a solid backup point guard that played tremendous defense and took a bit of pressure off of Jared Harper. Heron, Brown and Harper became the Big 3 and those guys each had the ability to take games over and go for 25+ on any given night. The Tigers picked up wins over the likes of Dayton, Murray State, Middle Tennessee, UAB, and UConn. While some of these teams had disappointing seasons (UConn, Dayton), this built confidence that this team could go out and beat anyone. This team had potential but nobody knew what to expect as SEC play began.
As the new year began, Auburn traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee, a team ranked in the Top 25 after wins over Purdue, N.C. State and a narrow loss to North Carolina. Going into that week, with games against Tennessee and Arkansas, I was honestly going to be thrilled splitting those games. Most people didn’t expect Auburn to go up to Knoxville and win that game. One of several noteworthy events took place the morning of the Tennessee game. This was the day when the 4-14 shirt debuted.
@AuburnMBB HC @coachbrucepearl has a motivational gem for his Tigers tonight as they open @SEC play. One expert picked them to go 4-14 in league play.... tonight at @Vol_Hoops @ESPNU 7p ET @debbieantonelli pic.twitter.com/1LuzgzrBQd— Rich Hollenberg (@RichOnSports) January 2, 2018
One thing that Bruce Pearl is really good at is motivating his players, and make them feel like it’s “us against the world.” The 4-14 shirt was a symbol of that. Things didn’t start well in that game as Auburn would fall down by double digits early (this became a common theme) and despite that, made a late first half run keyed by Mustapha Heron and Horace Spencer’s monster dunk to take the lead at halftime. The second half was Chuma Okeke’s breakout moment. He made multiple 3s down the stretch and Auburn won the game 94-84. I think this was the point that people began to start taking this team seriously. With a place in the Top 25 at stake, the Tigers came home and played Arkansas, another Top 25 team. Auburn controlled that game from start to finish and defeated the Razorbacks 89-78.
One of the coolest things I remember from this year that I want to share is arriving at the Ole Miss game on the night before school started. I got there about 15 minutes before doors opened, per usual in nonconference play, and the line waiting to enter Auburn Arena was incredible. The Jungle was full 75 minutes before tip. 75 minutes! And it was on a Tuesday night, and the opponent wasn’t Kentucky or Alabama, it was Ole Miss. No disrespect to Ole Miss, but this wasn’t a game I expected the Jungle to be completely full. It was a HUGE moment for Auburn Basketball. The first half saw Auburn start slow and the place was on pins and needles waiting to explode through that first half. They got that chance in the second half as they outscored the Rebels 50-25 in the second half and won by 15, the first win over Ole Miss in 10 tries. After beating Mississippi State and losing to Alabama on the road, the Tigers returned home to play Georgia. Once again, another defining moment for Auburn and especially the Jungle. The student line to get into that game was incredible. It had to stretch over a half a mile long and it was obvious that many students were going to be turned away. Imagine that: students being turned away from an Auburn BASKETBALL game. Coach Pearl got word of this and came out and greeted as many students as possible that were waiting to get into Auburn Arena. Like the Ole Miss game, Auburn started slow but as they were for a good part of the year, the second half was Auburn’s half. Bryce Brown made an acrobatic 3-pointer early in the half and the Tigers were off and running. The climax of that run was Mustapha Heron’s monster dunk to put Auburn in front. It might have been the loudest it’s ever been in Auburn Arena (until later in the year). Auburn held Georgia without a basket for about 12 1/2 minutes that half and won going away 79-65.
Auburn would go to Columbia, Missouri and beat a good Missouri team by 18 before returning home for the LSU game, the annual AUTLive game. That game was over in 5 minutes. Mustapha Heron was sizzling hot to start the game and Auburn was unconscious from 3 that day. LSU didn’t have a chance. It was one of those rare games where Auburn fans could sit back, go crazy, and just enjoy it knowing the final outcome was rarely in doubt. final outcome. Auburn would next sweep Ole Miss and beat Vanderbilt for the first time since 2008 in a game where Brown and Heron combined for 48 points and Jared Harper had 14 assists.
Come back tomorrow and read Part II where I’ll recap the rest of February and March as well as some of the year’s best highlights. War Eagle!