This is the fourth part of a five part series by Thomas Northcutt chronicling his time as a manager for Auburn Men’s Basketball, a position he had held since Bruce Pearl’s first season in Auburn. If you missed the first three posts, be sure to go back and read them here here and here.
2017-18. What a year this has been. This, the season that has been the ultimate roller coaster of emotions. Now, I know where you all are expecting/hoping for me to start, one very particular event that happened before the season. However, I am not going to address that in this setting. I think that it’s still inappropriate to talk about it anymore than what has already been said at this point in time.
I’m talking about that dern Auburn-LSU football game. What else would I be talking about?
Regardless of anything that happened, I knew we had a good team going into the year and I told people with confidence that we were a really good team. I even did my first big graphics series to help hype the season, which was a massive step forward for me in my Graphic Design career. But that Barry exhibition left everyone puzzled. We didn’t play like the team we knew we were, and that little point guard ripped us to shreds. Looking back on it, how we lost that game given the way the season went makes no sense. But man was the team frustrated. I was frustrated. This was supposed to be the year, and we lost the exhibition to the D2 school? What does this mean??
Losing that game turned out to be one of the best things that could happen to the team. That motivated this team to improve in practice every day so that they would never feel that level of disappointment again. Then that motivation turned into a couple wins, and those couple wins turned into confidence and energy. That confidence and energy is what you’ve seen all season, and it’s what makes this team fun to watch and be around. So, thank you for beating us Barry. As mad as I was in that moment, that was the best thing that could’ve happened to us.
Then the real season started, and we just kept defying the odds. We went up to Murray State, one of the most hostile and fun places we got to play at this year, and we held on with 6 healthy scholarship players. We beat a very good MTSU team in Birmingham. We beat a historic program like UConn by 30 the day before Christmas on ESPN2. The only thing that could’ve made that nonconference run better would’ve been if we had a 0 rather than a 1 in the loss column.
January 2nd, 2018: SEC play started in Knoxville. This game was so big for so many reasons; ones we knew and ones we wouldn’t learn until later. It was another game back in Knoxville for Coach Pearl. It was our chance to prove the 4-14 doubters wrong. It was our chance to walk into the house of a ranked team and own it. To me, it was my first time back in Thompson-Boling Arena since I was a kid, when my parents would take me to games in a stroller just a few years after they graduated from UT. Playing in Knoxville meant a lot to me, and I think I wanted to win that game more than anybody else in that gym that night.
Thankfully, to my elation, we came back from down big to run Tennessee out of their own gym, and I don’t think I could’ve been happier myself, not to mention how excited everyone else was with the performance. Winning in the arena that I grew up wanting to play in with the coach of my childhood meant so much to me. In my book, that’s my second favorite regular season game ever.
After that, we couldn’t be stopped. Every game, night in and night out, we found ways to win, and it was never the same way twice in a row. There was no quit in this team, just the relentless ambition to prove the world wrong and make people know that Auburn wasn’t the runt of the litter anymore, no more ugly duckling. We were here to run the tables. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a manager and I can say it was the most fun any basketball team could have in the regular season. Even when we did take that occasional L, we took it in stride and walked out proud of our performance, something we had never done before. There are so many fun, funny, and just positive stories I could tell about this team and season, but I think it all has all been so well conveyed in the videos put out on the Auburn Basketball social media (shoutout to Jeff Hamel and his crew for putting out the best videos in America).
This season has been one filled with the highest of highs, but right in the middle of it, we were hit with the lowest of lows. During the first half of the South Carolina game, one of my guys and a fan favorite, Anfernee McLemore went down with one of the nastiest injuries you could ever see. It’s something that I will never forget, and not by choice. I’ll never forget that there were just as many emotions shown by the team as any other game, but they were ones I had never seen before. Rather than pep talks, celebrations, and laughter, there were tears, hurt, and silence. Every single guy in that huddle was in tears, myself included, because we had just watched our brother go through something we all wish we could’ve stopped one way or another.
But just like every other game before, the team bounced back. While that game wound up being a loss for us, the next game, Alabama, proved just how resilient this team was. We already had the chip on our shoulder of losing to them earlier in the year, then you add on no Anfernee and no Mustapha, the odds were against us. But we came out with a passion and energy that only this team could bring, and with 7 scholarship players, and lest we forget the greatest 10 seconds in Patrick Kiem’s career (It was a steal, ref. Still bitter), you would’ve forgot that Bama had the NBA Lottery Pick. There was one other factor that really pushed us through, and honestly pushed us through at home all season.
This year would not have been the same without the Jungle and the amazing fan support we got in Auburn Arena every single game. Auburn Arena became the hardest place to play in the SEC because of the incredible support of our students and fans. Watching students jump up and down and yelling at the top of their lungs during a timeout is the type of atmosphere you dream of playing in, and playing in Auburn Arena was a dream come true this season. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it.
As much as I love Auburn Arena, there was only one game I ever did not look forward to, and that was Senior Day 2018. After 8 years as a manager and 4 years working at Auburn, I was not ready for my name to be called in that building and shake hands with all our coaching staff. If you ever see me in a game, I’m very emotional in my reactions to things, so I knew that the same would happen on this day, and I was dreading it. However, that moment wound up being one of the ones I will cherish most.
Normally, when a manager’s name is called, there’s a couple claps and a “woo” from their friends. But when I heard my name and I walked out with my family, I got more than a woo or two. It sounded like an actual cheer, a small roar if you will. I had people ask me if I heard them cheering for me or yelling my name, and I had to say no because there were so many people doing it. I actually had to ask other people if they heard it the same way too, because I still don’t believe it happened that way and I’m making it up or something. But everyone has the same report, it was an actual cheer from the arena, especially the student section, not just a few people. As soon as I got done shaking hands with the staff and made it to center court, I nearly broke down crying, just because everything hit me at once. All the love from others and all the hard work from days past hit all at once. I was a mess until after the first media timeout of the game.
I want to say one more thing on the crowd reaction. Thank you to everyone who cared enough to cheer for me, of all people. As a manager, our job is to go unnoticed workinig behind the scenes, and that Senior Day moment is one of the few times we generally get any sort of spotlight. So, to hear that many people cheer me on really touched me. God put me in the position to meet a lot of unique people from a lot of different backgrounds, and I like to think that moment proves I carried myself in a manner every day where I could positively impact every person I encountered in one way or another, and that I did these things with humility, motivation, and love in my heart. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s what that means to me.
Okay, enough of those icky emotions, back to the good stuff.
That game wound up being my favorite game of all time because of what kind of mark it left on Auburn. We became SEC Champions that day. Confetti fell from the rafters of Auburn Arena, some of it fell a little early but we’ll let that pass, and the team that was projected to go 4-14 got to lift a trophy saying we were the best team in the best conference in America. For me, after four years pouring blood, sweat, and tears (and lots of hours in Photoshop) into a program that I fell in love with so quickly, there was no greater way to end my career at Auburn Arena. I got to celebrate an SEC Title in Basketball at Auburn University, something I helped make happen in one way or another, surrounded by friends, both in and out of the program, and my family. And the best part? I didn’t even cry once after that first media time out.
All I have to say on the 2018 SEC Tournament: There was no Sweet Tea or Waffle House in St. Louis. Those two facts alone should remove it from being able to host anything with Southeastern in the name.