Kansas City, MO — Auburn basketball has an opportunity to go somewhere that this program has never been before. This team can separate themselves from every other Auburn team in history with one more win. That win would put Auburn in the Final Four for the first time ever.
Auburn has already matched the deepest postseason run by an Auburn squad by making it to the Elite Eight. It is the first and only time that Auburn has been here since Sonny Smith’s 1986 Tigers achieved the feat.
Getting back to this point starts to add some tradition to a program that has seriously lacked that over its history. Yes, Auburn has seen some great players come through its program and that should not be ignored, but there have only been a couple of teams that have the right to call themselves “Elite.” This team that takes the floor in a few hours is one of those teams.
Auburn has already become the first team ever to knockout two perennial blue bloods in Kansas and North Carolina in back-to-back games. Now, it is faced with another opportunity that no team has ever done. If Auburn can beat Kentucky, Auburn will have beaten three of the biggest four programs in college basketball right now (Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky) in the same tournament. Number four could still be on the docket for the Tigers if they and Duke continue to win. Another challenge would remain in the next game as Auburn would get the opportunity to knock off their second one-seed in the tournament in Virginia.
Auburn can add another ring to their fingers and another banner to Auburn Arena’s rafters with a win today. Auburn would win a Midwest region championship in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn can also further extend the longest active win streak in college basketball to 12 games.
Auburn has the opportunity to send its seniors - Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer and Cole Blackstock - out with a sense of pride that they were the senior class that turned this Auburn basketball program around. None of these guys came in while Auburn was headed by Tony Barbee, but they definitely felt the after-effects. Barbee did not recruit, develop or coach at a high level, and the effects were felt years after Auburn cut ties with him.
Bruce Pearl took over the program that was essentially starting from scratch. It was a slow process that tested some Auburn fans’ patience, but it was worth it. Now, Auburn basketball has turned into something beautiful to watch and something for every Auburn fan, alum, coach and player to be proud of. Today, Auburn has the opportunity to put an exclamation on that with some poetic justice served on the side as Tony Barbee is now an assistant coach for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Getting to an Elite Eight means that a standard has been set for Auburn’s incoming group of five freshmen. They now will come into a program that will - and should - have expectations. They will have to rise to the expectation and the occasion to continue to make this Auburn program grow and be something special.
The Elite Eight is huge for Bruce Pearl and his staff. They now have tangible results to share with recruits on the recruiting trail and show them what they have done in their five years at Auburn. The Elite Eight might get Auburn’s foot in the door with some more elite level basketball recruits around the nation.
While the Elite Eight might get Auburn’s foot in the door with some of those recruits, the Final Four could allow Pearl and Co. to break the whole door down. Auburn will be able to raise its level of recruiting with a Final Four next to their program and coach’s name. Never again will there be an Auburn team that will play Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky with a group of players that were not offered by any of them.
The Elite Eight validates something that Bruce Pearl has been saying about this program for months. He has said that this program is a top-25 program in the country. The sentiment from other programs around the country seemed to be that Pearl’s comments were well and good, but talk is cheap in the college basketball world. Well, Pearl and his rag-tag, scrappy bunch of Auburn players that will run and run until the other team drops have absolutely backed up their coach’s talk with an historic 11-game win streak, an SEC Tournament Championship, a Sweet Sixteen win and an Elite Eight berth. There is little doubt out there now that Auburn basketball is a top-25 program. A Final Four berth…and there would be a conversation about top-15 and maybe higher.
Finally, the Elite Eight has been special, especially as the country has had to take notice of the emergence of star forward Chuma Okeke. Unfortunately following his torn ACL on Friday, he will not walk out on the court of the Sprint Center today, but his teammates will all be out there. They all will be thinking about their fallen teammate. They have their new battle cry and hashtag in #DoItForChuma. A win not only does it for Chuma, but it shows that this team has the resilience and heart to fight back from a crushing injury to possibly the most beloved teammate on the squad. A win shows that this Auburn team is exactly that. A team. One player might be great, but a win today validates that this team is one of the best in the country, and it is the best in Auburn history. It would show the world that they need to continue to be taken seriously because as the players have saying throughout this run… Why not Auburn?