The best basketball team in the history of our state will take the court in the Final 4 Saturday in Minneapolis. That statement is not open for debate.
The 2018-19 Auburn Tigers were already the best team in school history before they beat Kentucky in overtime to advance to the Final 4. Their incredible march through New Mexico State, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky was not aided by a single scheduling break. As the fifth seed in the Midwest Region, they beat teams seeded No. 12, No. 4, No. 1 and No. 2. They won against one team that had won 30 games this season and three of the bluest blue bloods in college basketball history. In craps they call that 4 the hard way.
The Tigers must now face the lone No. 1 seed remaining (Virginia) in order to reach the national championship game against either No. 2 seed Michigan State or No. 3 seed Texas Tech.
But here’s the crazy and exciting part for Auburn: The Tigers have yet to pull off an upset in this tournament, and they won’t have to author one the rest of the way in order to win the national championship. Yes, the betting odds favor Virginia to beat Auburn and eventually win the national championship.
But true basketball fans won’t be surprised by an Auburn win, because this is not some magical or supernatural run Auburn is on. The Tigers didn’t shoot the ball particularly well against Kentucky and they were playing without Chuma Okeke, their best pro prospect, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. Auburn was simply the better team, just as they were against New Mexico State, Kansas and North Carolina.
In fact, they were the better team during the entire month of March, when the Tigers went undefeated in winning the SEC Tournament championship and the Midwest Regional. Their 12-game winning streak extends all the way back to a Feb. 23 loss at Kentucky.
No team from the state of Alabama has ever advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama, UAB and Auburn had all previously reached the Elite 8. But none of those previous teams took the step the Tigers took Sunday in beating Kentucky.
There still has never been a Final 4 team comprising or even led by Alabama natives.
Auburn’s historic quad is led by three players from Georgia, a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth University and some other out-of-state players. Only two contributors are from the state, and both took circuitous routes to get here.
Austin Wiley played at Spain Park High in Hoover before playing his final high school season in Florida. Danjel Purifoy is from Bibb County but faced multiple eligibility issues before finally seeing the court for the Tigers.
But Bruce Pearl has pieced together an interesting collection of players who are much better than the sum of their parts. Without Okeke, there’s not a single prospect on the roster who excites pro scouts. But Jared Harper is a great college point guard and every other player around him seems to have embraced his own role.
Harper scored or assisted on 14 of Auburn’s 17 points in overtime, including a perfect day at the free-throw line. He and senior Bryce Brown scored 50 of Auburn’s 77 points.
It’s not surprising that a junior and a senior would be leading the charge for the Tigers. In this era of the one-and-done stars, this Final 4 will not feature a single freshman star. That’s what happens when Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke are sent packing before the Final 4. The leading scorer among freshmen in this year’s Final 4 will be Michigan State’s Aaron Henry, who averages 5.9 points per game. Auburn’s freshman leader averages less than a point per game.
I’ve had some fun asking my Auburn friends if they would make a deal that would ensure the Tigers make it to the Final 4 or even win the national championship in exchange for a guaranteed loss to open the football season against Oregon. I couldn’t get a single taker on the hypothetical offer.
But just because Auburn is a football school doesn’t mean basketball success should be so shocking. As Auburn fans were celebrating at Toomer’s Corner, Texas Tech fans were doing the same on Buddy Holly Avenue.
Just like Auburn fans, the Red Raiders care more about football. Michigan State fans care as much about football, and their team has even reached the College Football Playoff. The Virginia faithful care more about reminding everybody that they claim Thomas Jefferson and you don’t, so they aren’t exactly a basketball mecca either.
The point is you don’t have to be a “basketball school” to have basketball success. If you did, Auburn wouldn’t have beaten the bluest of blue bloods — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — on the way to the Final 4.
And the talk in the state of Alabama in April wouldn’t be about basketball instead of what’s happening on the spring training practice fields. We can thank these incredible Auburn Tigers for that welcome change.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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