Remember when Auburn lost its first exhibition game to Division II Barry University? Neither do I.
That loss was supposed to be a sign of things to come for the Tigers, who were picked to finish 9th in the SEC after the FBI scandal led to the arrest of associate head coach Chuck Person and subsequent suspension of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.
No one would’ve blamed Auburn if they started making excuses and had another quiet season finishing near the bottom of the SEC standings.
Instead, it sparked a resilience that carried the Tigers all the way to an SEC regular season title and the programs’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003.
It didn’t end the way they wanted, as Clemson controlled the game from the opening tip and put together a dominating performance on its way to the Sweet 16.
But just like they had all season, head coach Bruce Pearl and company never made excuses.
“This basketball team was very undersized, we were down to just eight scholarship players available to us the last six weeks of the season,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Sunday. “But we managed to hang on and win an SEC regular season championship. I’m so proud of my players, so proud of our basketball program.”
Auburn was a second half team all season, scrapping and clawing its way to win after win. As the victories piled up, Auburn Arena went from an afterthought to one of the most electric atmospheres in the country.
After a win over Kentucky proved Auburn was for real, it seemed like the clock struck midnight when Anfernee McLemore was lost for the season after suffering a gruesome injury against South Carolina. That injury left Auburn with just eight healthy scholarship players and a three-man front-court rotation.
Decimated by injuries and with Mustapha Heron out with an illness, the Tigers turned in arguably their best performance of the season as they cruised to a 90-71 blowout of archrival Alabama.
Back-to-back road losses to Florida and Arkansas quickly brought Auburn back to earth as the SEC title appeared to be slipping away. But the Auburn Arena crowd simply wouldn’t let their team be denied as the Tigers’ resilience was rewarded with an SEC championship.
That resilience continued in the NCAA Tournament as Auburn narrowly avoided the upset against College of Charleston. The lack of size and depth in the front-court finally caught up to the Tigers in round two, but Pearl refused to let that take away from the success his team had.
“This doesn’t take anything away,” Pearl said. “As of Sunday afternoon there were twenty-something teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament and Auburn was one of them. This is where we want our basketball program. I have no seniors. We’re the second-youngest team in the SEC behind Kentucky. I feel good about the foundation of our program, and these kids have been amazing us all season long.”
Pearl is right, this loss shouldn’t take anything away from the tremendous season Auburn had. A team with eight scholarship players and a 6-foot-3 power forward should not stand a chance in the SEC.
But there they were, night after night, proving they belonged.
In just four short years since becoming head coach, Pearl has completely changed the culture of Auburn basketball. Just a few months after the university offered fans refunds on season tickets following the FBI scandal, basketball games became the hottest ticket in town.
By the end of the season, students were waiting in line for hours to get inside the arena, and they filled The Jungle and then some.
That atmosphere propelled Auburn to a 15-1 home record as team after team was simply overwhelmed by the crowd. The Tigers struggled on the road, finishing 4-7, but the road wins will come with experience.
There will be plenty of uncertainty surrounding Pearl and his future is at Auburn entering the offseason. But one thing is certain: the future is bright for Auburn basketball.