Auburn basketball: Brutal loss caps SEC's March Madness to forget
The hard truths first. If this loss for Auburn wasn’t historically devastating, it’s only because the SEC has provided an embarrassment of riches in that category. Was the Tigers’ 79-61 loss to No. 10 seed Miami worse than Kentucky’s loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s? Nope. Worse than Tennessee’s loss to No. 11 seed Michigan? Arguable. Plenty awful enough? Most definitely.
With Auburn’s offensive misfire, the SEC’s top 3 teams finished the NCAA Tournament a combined 2-3, with none of the group headed to the NCAA Sweet 16. There is no argument to the fact that the SEC was soft and overrated. Yes, Arkansas can still protect the conference’s honor by upsetting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. But would anybody count on that at this point?
For Auburn, after a season where the Tigers leaped to No. 1 and a 22-1 mark in early February, the Tigers finished with a 6-5 stretch, with losses in that span to Florida, Texas A&M and Miami. In January, the Tigers looked like a well-oiled machine. Many of the late stumbles were due to uneven product from the guards. KD Johnson, for instance, shot 0-for-14 in their SEC Tournament loss to A&M. So when the Tigers got eliminated, the guards were … actually reasonably OK.
Auburn’s top player — and arguably the best freshman in the nation — picked a terrible time for his worst game of the season. Only once before the Miami game had Jabari Smith failed to shoot 25% in a game. He went 2-for-15 en route to 5 points against Missouri on Jan. 25. Auburn squeaked through that game.
Miami made sure it avoided that fate. Smith was 3-for-16 against the Hurricanes and never got untracked. Back in that January Missouri game, center Walker Kessler helped save the day with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Against Miami, Kessler shot 0-for-6, scoring 2 points and grabbing 2 rebounds. He added 2 blocks — not exactly the kind of “triple-double” Auburn needed from its transfer big man. Auburn’s guards, if not brilliant, were good enough. It was the Tigers’ two most dependable weapons who doomed the day.
For the Tigers, the big picture question is what exactly did this season mean? In 8 seasons at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has now amassed 166 wins, but only 6 wins in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, winning 4 games in 2019 and taking the Tigers to their first Final Four berth earns some goodwill that an NCAA disappointment will not take away. Getting Auburn to No. 1 overall and winning the team’s 5th SEC regular-season title is certainly not irrelevant.
But at the same time, Pearl’s massive, renewed contract isn’t paying him to bow out in the Round of 32. Only once in 8 seasons on The Plains has he topped that production. Very much like Rick Barnes at Tennessee, there’s no question that Auburn basketball is better off with Pearl than it was before Pearl. Like Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Pearl risks becoming known as a coach who leads some great teams in January and February, maybe even some great teams in the SEC Tournament (although not this year), but a group of, well, Paper Tigers in the NCAA Tournament. Pearl winning 1 NCAA Tournament game with Jabari Smith could well look as bizarre in retrospect as Barnes winning 1 NCAA game with Kevin Durant at Texas.
The big picture is still better at Auburn than it probably has ever been. Even with Smith and Kessler certainly and likely headed to the NBA, Pearl helped the overall prestige of the program and put Auburn basketball a bit more on the national map than it had been before. The hard part is apparently in reaching the next level. Because if the best player in the country, a top defensive center, and a core of determined guards didn’t even make the Sweet 16, Pearl needs to have a pretty big rabbit in his hat next season to break through the transition from good to great.