Something unusual is happening with Auburn basketball this season. Perhaps like never before, the fans care.
“They’ve started taking buses to games,” former Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said Sunday. “You haven’t seen that in the Auburn program in many years. Maybe ever.”
More than 300 fans rode buses to watch the Tigers play at Mississippi State on Jan. 13. More than 200 fans went to the game Saturday at Georgia.
“They’re more enthused than I’ve ever seen them,” said Smith, who became Auburn coach 40 years ago and now does commentary on radio broadcasts of Auburn games. “Standing room only crowds. Basketball is relevant now to people. And that’s new. It’s the talk of the town.”
This is the environment awaiting an unusually vulnerable Kentucky team on Wednesday night. Saddled with the program’s first three-game losing streak since the 2008-09 season, the Cats will next play Auburn in front of the Tigers’ fifth sellout home crowd of the season.
Smith attributes the ranking and the capacity crowds to Auburn’s fourth-year coach. “Bruce Pearl’s just taken over,” he said.
Besides Pearl and the winning (22-3 overall and 10-2 as the first-place team in the Southeastern Conference), Auburn has two other compelling components this season:
▪ The intrigue that comes with being what SEC Network analyst Sean Farnham called “the biggest surprise in college basketball.” In a preseason poll, the media picked Auburn to finish ninth in the SEC, which was actually a relative vote of confidence. The Tigers hadn’t finished that high since the SEC scrapped divisional play seven seasons ago. Beginning with 2011-12, Auburn finished 10th, 14th, 12th, 13th, 13th and 11th.
▪ A hard-to-resist David-and-Goliath storyline. Auburn starts no player taller than 6-foot-7. Desean Murray is the Tigers’ power forward at 6-3. Point guard Jared Harper is only an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than former UK mighty mite Tyler Ulis.
Fortunately for Auburn, Harper can make a Ulis-like impact. He went into last weekend leading the SEC in assists and ranked in the top 10 in steals and free-throw accuracy.
“You look at the point guard position in the SEC, it’s one of the strongest positions right now, especially since (TJ) Starks started playing so well for Texas A&M,” Smith said. “I think (Harper) is in the top four. The reason I say that is it’s his team, and he can take over the game. Or he can make plays for somebody else. And he doesn’t turn it over a lot even though he’s the most guarded guy on the team.”
That Kentucky will dwarf Auburn adds further intrigue to Wednesday’s game. UK’s point guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is only an inch shorter than Auburn’s tallest starter, Anfernee McLemore.
“The only time they have trouble is because of size,” Smith said. “Size matters. And it doesn’t have to be size on the inside. It can be size on the perimeter that gives us trouble, too. That’s why I think Kentucky is going to be a tremendous challenge.”
Smith said that Auburn “lives off the perimeter game.” But the Tigers might be shorthanded against UK. The leading scorer, guard Bryce Brown, missed the game at Georgia on Saturday because of a shoulder injury. His status for the game against Kentucky has not been clarified.
The only time they have trouble is because of size. Size matters. And it doesn’t have to be size on the inside. It can be size on the perimeter that gives us trouble, too. That’s why I think Kentucky is going to be a tremendous challenge.
Sonny Smith, former Auburn coach, on the Tigers’ matchup with UK
After his team lost 95-70 to Auburn, LSU Coach Will Wade likened Brown to a former sharp-shooting Kentuckian. “Coach Pearl was using him like he used Chris Lofton back when he was at Tennessee,” Wade said of Brown. “He’s one of those guys that every time the ball leaves his hands, you think it’s going in.” Eleven of Brown’s 13 shots against LSU were three-pointers. He made five of 11. Having made nearly half his three-point shots in SEC play (42 of 85), he leads the league in shooting accuracy from beyond the arc.
Auburn, which at No. 8 last week had its first top-10 ranking since the poll of Feb. 7, 2000, won 78-61 at Georgia without Brown. This led SEC Network commentator Dane Bradshaw to make a telling comment about the program’s modest history.
“If it was North Carolina, we’d be talking about a Final Four team,” said Bradshaw, who played for Pearl at Tennessee a decade ago.
The Kentucky-Auburn game features the SEC’s best three-point defense (UK) against its best three-point offense (Auburn). League opponents have made only 26.1 percent of their shots from beyond the arc and averaged 6.3 three-pointers against Kentucky. Auburn has made 40.6 percent of its shots from beyond the arc and averaged 10.5 three-pointers.
After Auburn made 17 of 26 three-point shots against his team, Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew declared the Tigers “almost unguardable.”
No matter how many shots Auburn may miss against Kentucky, the Tigers don’t figure to get discouraged. A season full of challenges on and off the court began with an FBI investigation of college basketball that led to the dismissal of assistant coach Chuck Person and the ineligibility of the team’s starting front-line tandem of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.
A fearless and persistent competitiveness has marked this Auburn team. The Tigers have won five games in which they trailed by 10 or more points at halftime. Three of those victories came against SEC teams.
After Auburn overcame a 14-point deficit to win its first game against Georgia, Pearl said of his players, “They don’t panic.” What the third member of Auburn’s trio of standout guards, Mustapha Heron, said would surely sound like music to UK Coach John Calipari. “We trust each other,” Heron said. “We trust Bruce Pearl’s process. We try to play for each other, and having fun makes a huge difference.”
The latest example of perseverance came last Wednesday. Auburn rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit before losing 81-80 to visiting Texas A&M. After Auburn’s only loss in 14 home games, Pearl said he told the players, “Guys, I’m proud of you. I love the way you guys are competing. I love the way you’re handling adversity. You competed like champions.”
Kentucky at Auburn
9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2)