The Auburn Tigers Men’s basketball team has emerged as the top team in the country with not much debate about it. The Tigers began the season in the number 21 spot and have steadily climbed their way to number four, where they currently reside, with their only loss being to a then number 22 UCONN at the start of the season. The Tigers are on a 13-game winning steak with no intention of slowing down. Just in the last two weeks, the Tigers have knocked off five SEC opponents including a number 16 LSU, South Carolina, Florida, number 24 Alabama, and most recently, Ole Miss. The Tigers are no strangers to having the potential to win big, in essence, since Head Coach Bruce Pearl’s arrival. Things just haven’t gone their way the past couple of seasons. Here’s a recap:
Pearl’s fourth season with the Tigers was the first of a blossoming Auburn basketball program, finishing 26-8 and first in the SEC regular season. The Tigers punched their bid to the NCAA Tournament as a number four seed, making it to the Midwest second round, but suffering a loss to number five Clemson to end their season. The Tigers would finish the season 19th overall in the final AP Poll.
The Tigers go 30-10 on the season, win the SEC Championship and make their first Final Four run in school history. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their season would end in one of the most gutwrenching missed calls in history. Easily dubbed ‘the double-dribble heard around the world’. The Tigers would fall to Virginia 63-62, with a lingering bitter taste in their mouth. Whether you are an Auburn fan or not, this one is hard to argue:
After wrapping up the 2018-19 season, the Tigers would lose senior points-leader Bryce Brown to graduation and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke to the 2019 NBA Draft. Okeke went in the first round, pick 16, to the Orlando Magic. Junior guard Jared Harper forwent his senior year at Auburn to declare for the NBA Draft.
The season looked promising for the Tigers, for instance, they finished 25-6 and second in the SEC regular season. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, suspended all hopes of any postseason glory for college basketball. The Tigers settled into the number 20 spot in the final AP Poll to end the season.
The Tigers would take another talent hit by losing Isaac Okoro and Samir Doughty after the abrupt end of the season. Okoro added to Auburn’s list of first-rounders, going fifth to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Although they were on an uphill climb in previous seasons, last year was most definitely not the height of the climb. The Tigers went 13-14 on the season, took an ego blow from Alabama with a season sweep, and ended up in the turmoil of a self-imposed postseason ban. The ban resulted from former assistant coach Chuck Person’s bribery fiasco. Person was one of four coaches arrested in 2017 after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. The postseason ban was the second year of missing out for some of the Auburn roster. Adding insult to injury, that wasn’t the only issue glooming over the season.
The NCAA decided to be hot on Auburn’s heels, arguably because of the FBI drama, but who’s to say really. The NCAA dealt Auburn a tough lick by ruling five-star phenom freshman guard Sharife Cooper ineligible three days before the season opener. Cooper’s father’s employment as a sports agent is allegedly the reason for the target. No violations were discovered, however, and Cooper was ruled eligible in early January. Cooper only played 12 games with the Tigers before declaring for the draft after the conclusion of the season. Cooper was drafted in the second round, pick 18 to the Atlanta Hawks. Foward JT Thor was also drafted in the second round after the season, at pick seven to the Detroit Pistons. Although the season was less than enjoyable for the Auburn faithful, you can’t help but wonder how it would’ve gone with Cooper on the court. The people agree.
My mind is really going to that place of thinking just how elite AU basketball could be, imagine a tourney this year & last year…even if some guys had stayed, Sharife had been playing day 1, Powell isn’t hurt, Virginia gets called for a double dribble…..— Dee🅿️ Fried Auburn Memes (@AuburnMemes) January 17, 2021
…And Then There Was Jabari Smith
The puzzle piece Auburn, unfortunately, was missing last season at the hands of suspensions, bans, and chaos, might just be their answer this season. Jabari Smith, Jr., the five-star freshman power forward, is the Tigers’ superior advantage this season. Averaging 16.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2 assists a game, Smith makes Auburn a hard team to tango with. In addition to Smith’s dominance, he has help coming from all directions. UNC sophomore transfer Walker Kessler has become the, what some would say, unexpected secret weapon of the Tigers’ offense averaging 10 points, 7.5 rebounds, and a 60.5 percent field goal percentage. Kessler does his job on defense as well, with an impressive 70 blocks on the season so far. Auburn’s season blocks record sits at 126, courtesy of Kyle Davis in the 2002-03 season.
The Tigers’ depth doesn’t stop with Smith and Kessler, however, as stunners Wendell Green and K.D. Johnson are also averaging 12+ points a game. This basketball team has the potential to set themselves up for greatness and it will be a fun ride for everyone watching to see if the Tigers can finally have their moment.