Auburn’s Path Toward Basketball Immortality

Ken Cross

April 04, 2019 at 1:01 pm.

Mar 31, 2019; Kansas City, MO, United States; Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl cuts down the net 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 head coach Bruce Pearl cuts down the net 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

The Auburn Tigers embark on the Final Four in Minneapolis on Saturday as their path to the Holy Grail of college basketball similarly represents the path of the archetypical heroic structure from the annals of literary storytelling.

The quest started when Coach Bruce Pearl took over the program five years ago. My thoughts into building a program are that any head coach needs at least five years to implement every internal ingredient that he envisions into the structure of the program. There are going to be trials and tribulations along the way, so structure and foundation may have to be reshaped several times in order to take anchor.

Pearl is ironically in his fifth season and has the Tigers on the brink of immortality if Auburn can garner two more wins.

The ascension actually started a season ago when then Tigers won a share of the SEC regular season title and made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2003. Auburn picked up their first win in March Madness – a 62-58 win over Charleston – since defeating Wake Forest 16 years ago.

The task may have seemed daunting to many as Auburn took its fall in an 80-53 loss at Kentucky on February 20. The players took this as a total wake-up call and promised to reassert themselves, especially on defense, which they did.

In literary merits, when there is a fall, there is always a rebirth and a chance at redemption. The Tigers have embraced that concept in their current 12-game winning streak.

They have averaged 9.3 steals per game during that streak. Turning that type of defense into offense has been a staple with the quickness on the perimeter and the ability to anticipate. Auburn has scored a whopping 239 points off 192 forced turnovers. This feeds the easy layups and wide open threes in transition that are the backbone of their attack.

The journey from that loss to Kentucky has been the most pure form of Auburn basketball in the Pearl area. The Tigers have averaged 12.1 three-pointers per game as the rhythm and transition have been accentuated with a strong level of precision.

It led through the end of the SEC season where the Tigers won their last four games to pull into a 5-seed for the SEC Tournament. The 84-80 win over Tennessee on the last day of the season may have foreshadowed what would happen the next week.

Five days after that win over the Volunteers, Auburn started on a magical run of four wins in four days to capture the program’s first SEC Tournament title since 1984. Auburn exacted another win over the No. 5 Volunteers within a week as they took an 84-64 win on Sunday afternoon in Nashville.

The nation finally was starting to pay attention to the slice-and-dice activity of junior point guard Jared Harper who joined Bryce Brown with imperially deft shooting touches from behind the arc. Neither player was recruited by other SEC schools, but Pearl saw the ability and knew with work this tandem could be a lethal presence in the SEC.

Chuma Okeke continued to rise in stature with his ability to play nearly any position as well as he used a three-point game that was only rivaled by his ability to use his athleticism to score and defend in the paint.

An initiation stage of this journey could have come in the opening round matchup with WAC champion New Mexico State as the Tigers were able to withstand the relentless Aggies and post a 78-77 win.

The Aggies’ A.J. Harris passed on a potential game-tying layup that would have forced overtime. Seeing the myriad of Auburn shot-blockers, who kicked the ball outside to Terrell Brown who missed a three.  The Tigers proved that the survive-and-advance theme is always on display in this tournament. It made them refocus and approach their tasks at hand.

The rebirth of this team had taken place over the last several weeks of the season as Auburn had checked in as high as No. 7 in the nation and was looking at a 2-seed as it rolled into SEC play. Center Austin Wiley had fit into the lineup and was playing a larger role until he had an injury in a win over Texas A&M. The chemistry had to re-establish … and it did.

Wiley has still been a presence, but mores in spot minutes. He has shot 61 percent from the floor in the 12-game winning streak.

During the rebirth, Auburn has sprinted to three wins over blueblood programs as they have taken down Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in succession. Harper and Brown have been at the center of the renaissance as they have combined to average 34.2 points per game in the Tigers’ last five matchups.

Brown has made 20 triples in that time, while Harper has 32 assists against only 13 turnovers in an average of 29.8 minutes per contest.

The unhealable wound for the team came when Okeke was lost for the season in the 97-80 win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last Friday. With 8:02 to play he turned and lost his footing on a lay-up attempt and was later diagnosed with an ACL tear which ended his season.

While Okeke’s injury is unhealable for now in the tournament, he is expected to recover fully. With their brother down, this team rallied beautifully in its 77-71 overtime win over the Wildcats that cast them into the Final Four.

To the victor goes the spoils as the Tigers have enjoyed the rituals of two trophy presentations and net cuttings after winning the SEC Tournament and the Midwest Regional championship.

Auburn looks for the third ritual of a trophy presentation on Monday night in Vikings Stadium. To do that, they have to first beat a Virginia team on Saturday that is the antithesis of the Tigers with its slower tempo approach on both defense and offense.

One thing is certain. Pearl has orchestrated a basketball rebirth on the Plains that maybe no one deemed possible until now. The task at hand is always what’s next and the talented Cavaliers are standing in the way of the quest for that Holy Grail on Monday night.