I mean, what else can you possibly throw at Final Four-bound Auburn?
Pick your poison, Auburn.
A final-minute collapse of epic proportions in the first round.
A blue blood with more history in the last decade than the Tigers had in program history.
Another blue blood with more history in the past decade than Auburn had in program history.
A devastating, season-ending injury to an emerging inside-outside starter.
A third blue blood with its leading scorer back and playing the best basketball of his career.
A blown late lead and an overtime period that was supposed to bring Auburn back down to earth.
Enough poison to kill a feel-good story 6 times over. Auburn was supposed to croak, keel over and get back to caring about football.
About that, though.
Auburn’s victory over Kentucky on Sunday to advance to the program’s first Final Four was anything but lucky. To suggest that it was good fortune — a missed call here, a guy having a bad shooting day there — would be ignoring the pothole-ridden path that should have caused Auburn to blow a flat tire hundreds of miles ago. The Tigers are now set up for a date with Virginia, which boasts the No. 1 defense in America.
The question has probably been asked in between heaves of toilet paper all over Toomer’s Corner, but it’s worth asking again.
What else can you possibly throw at Auburn?
The cliché phrase “nobody believed in us” was used by Virginia players after the Cavaliers punched their ticket in an overtime Elite Eight victory of their own. It’s a rallying cry that plenty of teams use as internal motivation more than anything else.
Something tells me if Auburn fans saw the No. 1 seed making that claim, they’d laugh them out of the building. That’s not to say Virginia hasn’t had its own adversity to overcome — like beating a 16-seed this time — but Auburn could make that “nobody believed in us” claim and we’d all say, “you’re right. We didn’t.”
In our defense, though, we had good reasons.
The Chuma Okeke absence was part of that, as was the notion that Kentucky’s suffocating defense was going to be the key ingredient to finally put Auburn to rest. The first half looked like confirmation of that when the Cats jumped out to an 11-point lead. Add in the fact that Kentucky was 27-0 when leading by double digits at any point in a game this season, and yeah, it was hard to argue with the notion that this was the end for Auburn.
But at some point of the first half, it probably worried Kentucky fans that Auburn was within a possession even though it only had a trio of 3-pointers. If all the Tigers could do well was shoot from long range, they wouldn’t be packing their bags for Minneapolis. They’d be sitting at home. Like, last week.
Sunday’s historic win was a mix of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown creating their own shots, some inspired defense from Anfernee McLemore and a bit of hustle from Malik Dunbar. It didn’t matter that it seemed like Auburn’s bigs were in foul trouble all game.
That’s the other thing. In terms of game flow, Auburn has seen it all this tournament. It had the nervous lead that it held throughout and somehow closed out (New Mexico State), it had the game where it couldn’t miss from the jump (Kansas), it had the game where it stayed close until it caught fire late (UNC) and it had the double-digit early deficit that called for a defensive-fueled comeback when the 3-pointers weren’t falling (Kentucky).
The notion that Auburn can only win one type of game is gone. At least it should be.
What’s Virginia going to throw at Auburn that it hasn’t seen before? Even if Auburn can’t buy a bucket for the first 15 minutes, this team now knows how to get high-percentage looks and claw back. Harper will probably find a way to slice through the lane, hang tough against guys a foot taller than him and finish. Or Brown will go on an 8-0 run in a 2-minute stretch.
Or Bruce Pearl will sweat buckets while somehow keeping his composure to make the right adjustment. Let’s be honest. That’s the safest bet of any.
When you realize college football season is still 5 months away pic.twitter.com/uFY05NFX5f
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) March 31, 2019
This thing that Auburn is doing is unlike Loyola-Chicago or South Carolina, both of which were Cinderella stories the past 2 years. Both were incredible in their own right, but I’d argue they got favorable paths to the Final Four (South Carolina got Duke in what seemed like a home game in the second round).
Auburn stepped into the ring with several college basketball heavyweights and took left hooks to the jaw, only to bounce back and deliver the knockout punch. Regardless of how this thing plays out, that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Forget this just being the most impressive NCAA Tournament run in Auburn history. This is one of the most impressive runs of the NCAA Tournament. Period.
Auburn became the first team (and second ever) since 1997 Arizona to beat Kansas, Kentucky and UNC in the same NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats did that en route to a national title. Maybe that’s what’s next for the Tigers.
At this point, why assume anything will be enough to poison Auburn?