After beating Tennessee yesterday by a score of 73-66, Auburn now stands at 23-4 with four games remaining in SEC play. Let’s be honest, no matter what happens the rest of the way, Auburn is essentially guaranteed a third straight berth in the NCAA Tournament. That basically ensures that the 2019-2020 basketball season will be one of the eleven best seasons in program history.
It’s hard to believe that Auburn has only reached the NCAA Tournament ten times before this year, but it spells out part of the reason why what Bruce Pearl has done is so impressive. Previously, Sonny Smith’s teams of the 80s made five straight tourneys from 1984-1988, but it’s been sparse in between. Barring some sort of unreal collapse or failure to develop, Auburn should easily be in position to break that five-year streak of appearances with the talent that’s starting to come in. We thought that when Horace Spencer and Mustapha Heron signed, that we were going to be in serious business, but the guys now taking looks at Auburn are of another caliber. As much as we loved those previous dudes, they weren’t top overall, heck — top five or ten — talents in the country.
So, while the win yesterday might mask a few of the deficiencies on this year’s squad (we were trailing by 17 points before the comeback, and that’s been more of the norm than the outlier), you have to pinch yourself as an Auburn fan because a season with 23 wins before the end of February is nearly unheard of. We’re disappointed? You have to say “Well, yeah” and also “Of course not” based on what this group of guys accomplished last season in going to the Final Four. And while the greatest season in Auburn basketball history came within an eyelash of an actual national championship, which would’ve been the most insane run since, what... Texas Western (?)... we felt tepid on the results of the season at this point in 2019. It’s hard to believe now, but let’s see where this year compares to last year at the same time.
After this same weekend last year, Auburn was coming off of an 80-53 spanking in Lexington, and sitting at 18-9 overall. The Tigers were just 7-7 in SEC play, and still had to take on what many thought was the best team in the conference in Tennessee. Getting chewed up by Kentucky turned into the catalyst for the rest of the year, and Chuma Okeke’s three at Georgia ended up being the spark to give Auburn the momentum to win out until April.
Still, this was the mindset after that game against Kentucky...
Anybody have any dark liquor— college and magnolia (@CollegeAndMag) February 23, 2019
We had no idea what could possibly happen after that, but Bruce coached his guys up and they went on the historic run.
Instead of licking our wounds and struggling to stay in the hunt for the SEC regular season title, Auburn is 10-4 in SEC play with four games remaining, and there’s still a chance to win the championship and grab that top seed in Nashville. Remember how Auburn had to play four games in four days last year to win the SEC Tournament? This year’s group already has a two-game edge plus tiebreaker over any team that could bounce them out of the top four seeds. That’s not to mention a perfect finish to go 14-4 in the league could very well be enough to get another SEC regular season title.
Auburn has its toughest test of the season next Saturday at Rupp Arena, and the Tigers will have to play a team they’ve already beaten, in a place where they got rolled by nearly 30 last year. Kentucky won’t forget what happened, and there’s no way that Auburn will get to attempt 44 free throws inside Rupp Arena.
At 23 wins already, Auburn has surpassed the regular season total from 2019. We only got to 30 wins overall because we had to play four games in Nashville to win it. We won four more in the NCAA Tournament, and that made us hit our total. Now, this team may not quite be as explosive as the one that passed up open layups to embarrass people with threes last season, but they may be a bit more consistent.
So, what’s an optimistic and pessimistic outlook for the rest of the year? Optimistic mirrors 2019, with a 4-0 finish and the top overall seed in Nashville. Once the Tigers are there, a trip to the semifinals at least and you hit the NCAA Tournament at 28-5 or 29-5 (30-4 would be a perfect run through to Selection Sunday). After that, I don’t think anyone has Final Four aspirations with this team — they’ve proven to get down too much, and the shooting just isn’t there — but Sweet Sixteen isn’t out of the question. A favorable matchup or an upset in your bracket could net another Elite Eight bid. Reaching the second weekend could very well give this year’s edition the highest single-season win total in school history.
But pessimistic isn’t quite as fun. I don’t think Auburn would lose out the rest of the way, but a 1-3 finish, with a win over Ole Miss or A&M at home, and losses to Kentucky and Tennessee on the road would get us to that point. You enter the SEC Tournament at 24-7, lose on your first day, and you’re a 24-8 team in the NCAA Tourney. That nets you a 4 or 5 seed, and suddenly you’re a ripe upset pick to a hot-shooting 12 or 13 seed.
The fun thing about basketball, and this season in particular, is that I don’t think we have any idea what’s going to happen. Who’s elite? Nobody.
Yesterday, San Diego State, Baylor, and Gonzaga all lost. Three of the top four teams in the country and the three longest winning streaks in the country all got bounced on a big Saturday. The culprits? UNLV, Kansas, and BYU. Only one of those teams is a name you’d expect to make noise in March.
The point is... Auburn still has something really special ahead of them, most notably if Isaac Okoro returns to the lineup fully healthy inside Rupp Arena. We didn’t expect anything good one year ago today, but now we know what’s possible with Bruce Pearl running the show. His halftime kick in the butt may have been the medicine this team needed to push through the final few games of the regular season on a good note. Once tournament time begins, all bets are off. Enjoy the final couple of weeks, everyone, it’s going to be an uncertain and fun ride.