NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Auburn may be staring down the most lopsided final score in the SEC tournament. If that’s the way Saturday’s semifinal plays out, it will be the most one of the meaningful blowouts in the history of Auburn basketball.
Kentucky and Auburn might be one of the biggest conference tournament semifinal mismatches in the country, but Auburn has already made its statement.
With an epic LSU collapse Friday, the Tigers left the door open for Auburn in the SEC quarterfinals. Coach Bruce Pearl and the Tigers busted through, defeating LSU 73-70 for Auburn’s second win over an NCAA contender in two days. Auburn upset Texas A&M 66-59 a night earlier, potentially sending the Aggies to the NIT.
After winning four conference games all season, Auburn has won three SEC tournament games in three days.
Certainly, LSU gave Auburn a gift with a spectacular meltdown in the final minutes. LSU led by eight with 2:45 to go before Auburn went on an 11-3 run to tie the game with regulation.
It was also easy to see Pearl’s team rocketing ahead of SEC foes making incremental progress.
LSU may be the most talented team in the league not named Kentucky. Auburn is has a better roster than ... Missouri and Mississippi State? Yet all of LSU’s pro prospects couldn’t help the Tigers hit shots at the end, decide the proper time to foul or not to foul or prevent yet another series of end-of-game gaffes.
When a perfect play needed to be run, Auburn ran it.
Down 3 in the final seconds of regulation, Cinmeon Bowers set the screen for KT Harrell, the leading scorer in the SEC, to hit an uncontested 3 to tie the game at 64.
“I make KT look real good,” Bowers said. “I told him I’m going to get this screen for you to get a good shot. ... It’s going to be cash every time.”
Now, Auburn’s future as a factor in the SEC is just as certain as Harrell’s game-tying shot.
Just look around at the trajectory of teams around the SEC. Kentucky will be on top as long as John Calipari is there. Florida went 16-17, but that’s probably an aberration.
The next tier of the SEC is wide open. Vanderbilt and Alabama are treading water. Missouri, Mississippi State and South Carolina are perpetually rebuilding.
Texas A&M will add a top-five recruiting class next season. LSU will add two five-star prospects. But Auburn just beat those last two teams, and the Tigers beat both of them with a vastly inferior roster. Auburn has only one regular taller than 6-7. The Tigers are playing guys who were at New Mexico State and Niagara last season.
In the last two games of the SEC tournament, Auburn has played greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not something many SEC teams can say.
If Pearl has found a way to lead this team to wins over A&M and LSU in two days, what is he going to do when he has players?
That’s coming. Auburn already has a top-15 recruiting class when its head coach couldn’t recruit until late August due to NCAA sanctions stemming from his time at Tennessee.
In the short term, Pearl’s not talking about potential miracles against Kentucky. He’s called them the biggest, most physical team he’s seen in his career. His team is woefully undersized in comparison, even moreso with the absence of 6-8 forward Jordon Granger, who will miss the game after he was ejected for throwing a punch in a scrum against LSU.
In the only meeting between Auburn and Kentucky this season, the Wildcats won 115-75, a game decided when Kentucky took a 30-4 lead to start the game.
A competitive game on its own would be a major victory for Auburn, but it won’t be the last.
“(We’re) just trying to get Auburn relevant, for us to be a factor,” Pearl said. “The way our kids play hard, the way they don't quit, and the way they believe in each other, they're making some history.”