Can Auburn Make The Final Four?

June 20, 2018 By Cameron Caldwell

Horace Spencer (0) soaks in the fun of a championship. Photo by Wade Rackley /Auburn athletics

When you really sit back and think about it, we probably shouldn’t even be having this discussion. After all, we are talking about Auburn basketball. But, this isn’t your pawpaw’s Auburn basketball program. Heck, it’s hard for even me to fathom that I’m writing about Auburn basketball’s chances of making a run to the 2019 Final Four, but here I am typing along, and in my defense, it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

It’s true that Auburn has never advanced to the Final Four, but this upcoming season may very well be the program’s best chance to make it’s first appearance. Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of things would have to happen along with some old fashion good luck, but I truly believe that the Tigers have the head coach and roster to do what’s never been done before.

And get ready for the “h” word – there’s going to be more hype surrounding the basketball program at Auburn University than arguably ever before. The expectations in year five of Bruce Pearl’s reign will be enormous, and if we’ve learned anything about the Tiger head coach it’s that he relishes any type of positive publicity for his program even if it does come with a big target on one’s back.

High expectations in basketball are very rare for Auburn. Former Tiger head coach Sonny Smith put together quite an impressive run back in the 80’s led by future NBA stars like Charles Barkley, Chris Morris, and Chuck Person. The Tigers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 1985, and the following year in ’86 saw Auburn get one step closer to the Final Four when the Tigers made their first and only Elite Eight appearance. In fact, Auburn made the NCAA Tournament a program record five consecutive seasons under Smith’s command in 1984, ’85, ’86, ’87, and ’88.

However, Tiger fans had to wait another 11 years before Auburn sniffed March Madness again, but 1999 saw Auburn forward Chris Porter almost jump out of Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum when he led the Tigers to an SEC Championship and a birth in the Sweet Sixteen. Four years later in 2003, the last time Auburn made the Sweet Sixteen, Marquis Daniels’ silky smooth moves helped lead the Tigers to a surprisingly successful NCAA tournament. Of course we can’t forget last season when Bruce’s squad won a share of the regular season SEC Championship, but came up short in the postseason after losing Anfernee McLemore to injury.

It’s not often, if ever, that we say “Auburn” and “Final Four” in the same sentence, but the upcoming 2018-2019 season may be the Tigers best chance yet.

Though the expectations will be lofty, they do come with some validation. We know that Auburn won the aforementioned SEC Championship last season, the school’s first since 1999. We know that everybody except for Mustapha Heron, Davion Mitchell, and Desean Murray will return to the plains, including 2 stars that didn’t even play last season, and not to mention, the Tigers have picked up late additions via the transfer route.

The way this team gels and plays together could be really special and will be something to watch for. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are making their returns after a year-long suspension, and despite having to watch every game from the Auburn bench last season, the two were able to practice with the team, so I expect a seamless transition as Pearl welcomes two of his biggest stars back into the fold. However, keep in mind that Purifoy will have to sit out the first nine games of the season to complete his suspension, but he’ll be back in plenty of time for league play when he’s needed most.

Pearl should have plenty of depth at his disposal, and there are some newcomers that should be fun to watch. VCU transfer Samir Doughty, Memphis transfer Jamal Johnson, and JUCO transfer J’von McCormick will all be names to look out for, though Johnson will have to sit out a year after transferring to the plains from Memphis. Also, if 4-star big man Babatunde Akingbola reclassifies to 2018, he could join the team and be placed in the rotation down low.

Fans might be hesitant to get too excited, because as us Auburn fans know, there is always a chance to be humbled. We have gotten attached to teams so many times just to have our hearts ripped out at the most inopportune times. Even knowing all this, something still feels different about this upcoming basketball season, especially after the foundation that Pearl has laid.

Maybe we know how good we are. Maybe we have faith in Bruce. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t believe in that postseason curse that seems to haunt every Auburn team excluding the 2010 football squad and the equestrian program.

College basketball has arguably the most exciting, unpredictable, and challenging postseason of any major sport, amateur or professional. There are 68 teams that have a shot at grabbing the crown, and every game is obviously important because there are no second chances in March Madness – lose and you’re out or win and advance – it’s as simple as that. The NCAA basketball tournament and more specifically the Final Four are usually ruled by college basketball bluebloods like the Duke’s and North Carolina’s of the world, but there also have been countless Cinderella stories that have captured America’s heart.

That said, you obviously want to earn the highest NCAA tournament seed that you possibly can. Building your resume, competing for a championship, and playing on the biggest stages help in cementing your case for a top seed. The Auburn Tigers have a very good shot at clinching a top national seed before it’s all said and done IF they take care of business and avoid injuries.

The Tigers get a perfect opportunity to prove their worth as a Final Four contender right outta the gates after receiving an invitation to the prestigious Maui Invitational, which features arguably its strongest field ever in the 35-year history of the tournament. Along with Auburn, teams like Duke, Gonzaga, Arizona, and Xavier will provide college basketball fans an early look of who are the contenders and pretenders for the 2018-19 season.

Speaking of contenders, let’s take a quick look at the teams that have the best odds to reach the Final Four. According to Vegas, Duke leads the charge with 7/1 odds after Coach K brought in one of the best recruiting classes of all-time. Kansas has a lot of depth and experience along their interior, and exciting newcomers in the backcourt and are at 9/1 odds. Villanova sits at 15/2 odds where Jay Wright will have to reload as the Wildcats aim for their 3rd national championship in four years. A dark horse candidate might be Syracuse (33/1), who will be extremely talented and have loads of tournament experience under Jim Boeheim. There is one underlying theme with all of these teams I just mentioned – they are staples of the sport. Their programs are used to making runs and winning titles. Auburn is not. The Tigers are usually reserved to lurking in the shadows when speaking of college basketball’s best teams, but not this year. Vegas tabs Auburn with the 12th best odds to reach the Final Four matching Syracuse at 33/1.

As evidenced by last season, the more Auburn plays the underdog role, the better they seem to play. Last season, when the team played with a chip on their shoulder, they balled out. When things got a little relaxed, it seemed like the Tigers lost their edge and bad things happened aka L’s. Auburn needs to keep that same fire throughout the season despite not being able to sneak upon anyone this year.

It is extremely difficult to try and predict NCAA basketball tournament champions before the season starts. Anything can derail a team’s season. The toughest part is trying to stay the course. The season is long and it is important to stay focused on the main goal.

Taking a look at the biggest threats out of the SEC, you have to start with Kentucky. They are the class of the conference and coincidently just signed another great recruiting class. Tennessee will look to defend their shared regular season title, while they bring most of their talented roster back. Vanderbilt looks to be on the rise after bringing in an uber-talented recruiting class, which will likely have Nashville rockin’ this season.

When you take history into account, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion about Auburn basketball, but that’s a testament to the job Bruce Pearl has done, especially in how he’s changed the culture on the plains surrounding the program.

In the past, typically all of our focus has centered around Auburn football, but times are obviously changing and that change has come because of Pearl. This is new for us, but as long as Bruce is the captain of our ship, I believe the overall passion and support for Auburn hoops is here to stay…along with the lofty expectations.

If Auburn is able to stay healthy and play to their talent, the possibilities are endless. After all, here it is in the dead of summer and I’m writing about Auburn basketball, which should tell you all you need to know. The Auburn basketball program that Bruce Pearl has built has obviously raised all of our expectations, and hopefully after the season, they’ll be raising banners just as high.