SEC ‘What-If?’ No. 3: What if Chuma Okeke didn’t get hurt during the 2019 NCAA Tournament?
Welcome back to SEC “What-Ifs?” Today, we’ll be taking a look at a key injury that may have hampered Auburn’s 2019 NCAA Tournament run. Previous SEC “What-Ifs?” involved Feleipe Franks and Mark Richt.
The Auburn Tigers had a magical 2018-19 season in men’s basketball, making their first run to a Final Four and nearly advancing to the title game if not for a missed call and then a foul on Virginia’s Kyle Guy. Of course, you know the story — Guy stepped to the line and knocked down 3 free throws in a row to sink Auburn’s hopes. The Cavaliers then went on to beat Texas Tech in the title game.
But it’s important to remember that the Tigers were without perhaps their best player during that Final Four game against the Hoos. As you’ll recall, Chuma Okeke suffered a torn ACL during the Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina the previous weekend.
Okeke ultimately went No. 16 overall to the Orlando Magic in the 2019 NBA Draft, so it’s safe to say he was a special player for coach Bruce Pearl and Auburn. Therefore, let’s ask the question — what if Chuma Okeke didn’t get hurt during the NCAA Tournament last year?
Last year’s Auburn team was loaded. Jared Harper was the key to the offense at the point, Bryce Brown was a knockdown 3-point shooter, Okeke was a versatile defender and underrated scorer, and Samir Doughty, Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer, Malik Dunbar, Danjel Purifoy and Anthony McLemore all played key roles, too.
Okeke, though, became the team’s most indispensable player, especially down the stretch. In the SEC Tournament title game, Okeke scored 18 points and grabbed 13 boards in a win over Tennessee.
Then, in the Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, he was putting together his masterpiece. In 25 minutes, he had 20 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block.
That’s when disaster struck:
Auburn was up by 14 points and cruised to a 97-80 victory, but Okeke’s injury cast a pall on the celebration. Yes, it was inspiring to see him advance the Tigers on the big bracket after the Elite Eight win (more on that in a second), but this was a team without its most-versatile player.
And, without him, it’s possible the Tigers missed out on a great chance to win a national championship.
The Elite Eight
Playing for Chuma, Auburn edged Kentucky in the Elite Eight, using overtime to pick up the 77-71 victory. It was the Harper and Brown show, as Harper scored 26 points and Brown added 24.
If Okeke were around, the Tigers might not have needed overtime. Kentucky’s PJ Washington was unstoppable, scoring 28 points and grabbing 13 rebounds while coming off the bench due to an injury of his own.
Trying to stop him were Dunbar, McLemore and Spencer. Their combined line — 56 minutes played, 9 total points, 13 fouls (Spencer fouled out in 13 minutes) and 10 rebounds. Those guys played their hearts out and did what Auburn needed them to do to win, but it would have been easier with Okeke on the floor.
But, of course, the Elite Eight isn’t what this what-if is all about. No, that came in the Final Four against Virginia.
Auburn had Virginia on the ropes in the Final Four. The Tigers led 62-60 with 1.5 seconds left. It was Virginia ball, inbounding from the frontcourt.
That’s when the foul took place. As you can see in the video below, when Virginia sharpshooter Kyle Guy catches the ball in the corner and turns to shoot, Samir Doughty provides the defense, but gets a bit too close to Guy:
Understandably, Pearl and the Tigers were irate that a foul was called on Doughty. It was absolutely a foul, but not one you see called too often in last-second situations like this one. But, Guy still had to make at least 2 shots to keep the Cavaliers alive.
Naturally, he did just that, sinking all 3 free throws to give the Cavaliers a win. But, if Okeke were still healthy, he probably would have been on the court in Doughty’s place.
This isn’t to rip on Doughty, as he led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points against that tough Virginia defense. However, in a situation like that with 1.5 seconds left, Okeke might have been guarding Virginia’s best 3-point shooter.
Look at how instinctive Okeke is around the ball:
At the very least, Okeke probably would have been following Virginia star DeAndre Hunter around all night. Hunter finished with 14 points. Would he have had fewer if Okeke were on him?
The title game
The matchup between Virginia and Texas Tech was a ton of fun, with the Cavaliers pulling away in overtime to clinch the title 85-77. That’s right, Virginia scored 85 points (though 17 came in OT). So, if the Cavaliers were able to put up that much offense against the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense, why couldn’t Auburn? Auburn was better on offense, remember?
Imagine Bryce Brown and Jared Harper going to work against the Red Raiders. Add in Okeke doing his best to lock down Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver and it’s easy to see a path to the title for Pearl’s squad.
Pearl has turned the Tigers into a national power. Auburn is fun to watch and is churning out top NBA Draft prospects (Isaac Okoro is a likely lottery pick this year). Yes, they missed a great chance last year to win a title, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers back in the Final Four soon. Maybe they’ll have better injury luck next time around.