SCARBROUGH'S TAKE

Don’t Overlook Auburn or Clucko the Chicken

Lyn Scarbrough

April 03, 2019 at 1:20 pm.

Mar 31, 2019; Kansas City, MO, United States; Auburn Tigers players celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game of the midwest regional of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Sprint Center. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 31, 2019; Kansas City, MO, United States; Auburn Tigers players celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game of the midwest regional of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Sprint Center. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We may have just seen the most remarkable postseason run in the history of college basketball.

That’s a big statement, but it’s an argument that’s easy to make.

And, almost nobody saw it coming. Just a very few brave (and foolish-looking) analysts … along with Clucko the Chicken.

Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, Auburn was given little respect. Apparently, the Tigers four-game sprint through the SEC to win the conference tournament championship wasn’t enough. Didn’t matter that it was only the second time ever that a team overcame the grueling task of four games in four days to win the SEC title. (Auburn also did it the other time when it won the 1985 championship.) Nor that the 20-point victim was Tennessee, which had been ranked No. 1 for three weeks late in the season.

In Round One of the NCAA Tournament, just four days later … and 1,600 miles away … Auburn defeated New Mexico State, the 30-win Western Athletic Conference champions on a 19-game winning streak, located within driving distance of Salt Lake City.

Two days later, the Tigers steamrolled Kansas, leading by as many as 20 points in a game never competitive after intermission, earning its way to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2003.

Still, there were almost no believers.

Except, Clucko the Chicken.

In case you’re not aware, Clucko is a really, really big Brahma chicken, long known for sports prediction prowess. Clucko comes down the walkway from his house and picks games, actually winning a 24-entrant football bowl pool a number of years ago.

Clucko chooses from two feed bowls, each designated for a team, but it’s rumored that sometimes a human just tosses a coin and credits Clucko instead. Whatever the case, only three of the 20-plus experts on one sports web site picked Auburn over North Carolina. One of those was Clucko and the chicken got it right. The outcome was another rout, a 97-80 win over the Tar Heels, the worst defeat and most points ever surrendered by UNC in NCAA Tournament play.

Tiger head coach Bruce Pearl emptied the bench late against both Kansas and North Carolina and still kept the double digit margins. Unthinkable!

Only one more opponent stood in the way of Auburn’s first trip to the Final Four … Kentucky, the same team that massacred the Tigers, 80-53, just 35 days before. And, to make things worse, sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, arguably the team’s best player, an inspirational team leader, suffered a brutal knee injury in the closing minutes of the UNC win after posting 20 points and 11 rebounds and was lost for the rest of the season. Pearl and his staff had just one day to prepare for the Wildcats without him.

With their injured teammate in a sideline wheelchair for the second half, Auburn quickly erased a 5-point halftime deficit, led most of the way and missed a chance to win the game in regulation. In overtime, Tiger junior point guard Jared Harper outscored Kentucky by himself as Auburn won, 77-71, earning its first trip to the Final Four.

Just think about that for a minute … Auburn is playing in the Final Four! Two wins away from the national championship … in BASKETBALL.

The most remarkable run in the history of college basketball? Really?

You decide:

** Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas are the three winningest teams in the history of college basketball. They have almost 7,000 wins combined. Each of them has over 900 wins more than Auburn. But, the Tigers just defeated those three in consecutive games.

** Kentucky (8), North Carolina (6) and Kansas (3) have 17 national championships combined. Probably no Auburn player has ever attended a national championship game. But, the Tigers just defeated those three in consecutive games.

** Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas have a combined 12 McDonald’s All-Americans on their 2018-2019 rosters. Auburn’s roster has players who eat at McDonald’s. But, the Tigers just defeated those three in consecutive games.

** Never before had any team beaten Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky back-to-back-to-back in NCAA postseason play. Arizona, when it won the 1997 national championship, defeated those three teams, but not in consecutive games.

What would it take to make that run more difficult? Maybe add Duke to the list. Bring back John Wooden and add one of his UCLA teams. Short of that, it’s hardly possible.

Auburn’s NCAA postseason history isn’t long (only nine tournament invitations), but seeding challenges are nothing new. Three times the Tigers have been eliminated by the eventual national champion … Louisville (1986), Indiana (1987), Syracuse (2003) … another time they lost to the runner-up (Oklahoma, 1988).

So, why has this Auburn team been able to go further than any Tiger team before, to get over that hurdle? Why has it been able to claim the all-time program single-season record with 30 wins?

The numbers tell the story on offense and defense.

According to NCAA stats a week or so ago, here’s where Auburn stood for the season out of 339 teams:

** 1st in 3-point field goals made

** 2nd in 3-point field goal attempts

** 3rd in 3-point field goals per game

** 22nd in scoring margin

** 27th in scoring offense

** 2nd in steals

** 3rd in turnover margin

** 4th in steals per game

** 6th in turnovers forced

** 18th in blocked shots per game

** 19th in total blocked shots

And, about 25% of the times when Auburn opponents have the ball, they turn it over. Think about that one for a minute, too.

Teams with those numbers should win most of their games.

But, numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Coaching is critical and Pearl is a master at that job. Obviously, the coaching strategy is sound. But, other things are equally important, if not more. Inspiration. Encouragement. Gratitude. Salesmanship – selling the fans, the players, the recruits on the program. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a better fit for Auburn than Pearl and his staff.

The players, the team. They bring it all … depth, experience, speed, talent, motivation and confidence. Those last two factors have made the biggest difference in Auburn’s run through the brackets, joining Michigan State, Texas Tech and Virginia in the Final Four.

Of course, the Cavaliers, the last remaining No. 1 seed, are the favorites for the game on Saturday evening in Minneapolis, but that’s been the case every time that Auburn has taken the court against any squad of college bluebloods in this tournament.

It may be true that Auburn doesn’t have the most talented team remaining in the field. They don’t have the tallest team or the one with the most flashy basketball tradition.

But, a word of caution for those other three, especially next-up Virginia.

It might finally be time to show proper respect to the Tigers … and to the chicken.