AUBURN – What a 24 hours on the Plains. The atmosphere was like an Iron Bowl with actual stakes. From Friday afternoon until the buzzer sounded after Auburn’s 80-71 win over Kentucky, the atmosphere around Auburn Arena was remarkable. And it wasn’t because the almighty Kentucky basketball team was on campus.
In the 10 years prior to Bruce Pearl’s arrival, Auburn’s record in the SEC was 53-111. We don’t have to relive that era of basketball, but it was not good. There was no direction, no optimism, no hope, and absolutely no thoughts that within the next decade, the Tigers’ program could consistently be in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the Final Four. That was a fantasy, unthinkable.
But, here we are. In the last five years, Auburn’s SEC record under Pearl is 50-29. That’s a 63 percent winning percentage. For context, football’s conference record the last five seasons is 24-18 – a winning percentage of 57 percent. The Tigers have a regular season SEC title, a SEC tournament title and a Final Four appearance. And to make that more impressive, the standard of play in the SEC within the last five years is far more difficult than it was ten years ago. The SEC is as good as it’s ever been in basketball, and at the same time, Auburn’s helping lead the charge. Again, remarkable.
Auburn’s average attendance this season is a sellout. The program has sold out 10 consecutive home games. Removing the COVID year, where fan attendance was limited, Auburn is 54-4 at home in the last four seasons dating back to the championship 2017-18 season.
Yesterday, outside of Auburn in the SEC, the lowest-priced ticket for admission to a SEC home game was $34. The lowest-priced ticket to enter Auburn Arena on Saturday was $350. Thousands of students camped out for 20 straight hours to make sure they could attend the game. It never rose above 36 degrees and dropped as low as 30. They slept on the ground. Yea, they made a mess, but that was cleaned up in relatively short order. Pearl even had ideas after the game for making it a more permanent thing. Jungle City, he wants to call it. Redesign the area, make it a space friendly for camping out, organize the chaos. And these days, if Pearl has a marketing idea, you’d be smart to go with it.
Look, what happened on Saturday was historic. What will happen on Monday will be historic, too. Auburn will climb to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. There’s almost no doubt about that. The Tigers will surpass perennial power and last year’s national runner-up Gonzaga, and Gonzaga didn’t even lose. That’s how impressive Auburn has been.
Who would have thought that when Auburn won the SEC’s regular season crown five years ago, that it would only be the start of a meteoric rise of the Auburn basketball program? The next season, a tournament title and Final Four run for the ages. The next season, a No. 2 finish in the league before COVID ended their aspirations of another tournament run. Now this, a No. 1 ranking, the odds-on-favorite to win the league, and one of the favorites to win the national championship. Even writing that is surreal.
I’ve often said over the last few years, the real test for how far the Auburn basketball program has come is when the highs turn into “lows.” Now, for Pearl and this program, at this stage, those lows might not be that low. But when expectations aren’t met on the court or in recruiting, I’m curious to see the reaction. I’m sure Pearl welcomes it, because that means that Auburn has reached a point it’s never been before as a program. For now, that seems like an impossibility. The Auburn fanbase is on cloud nine, and very little is going to change that for the forseeable future.
So, what happened yesterday wasn’t about Kentucky. Don’t let anyone tell you different, especially anyone dressed in blue. The world doesn’t revolve around that program, despite what they might think. Auburn beat Kentucky to reach the Final Four, and they beat Kentucky to reach the top ranking in the land. Not even Kentucky can slow down what Auburn has going on these days. Give the credit to Pearl, the basketball-crazed students, the scholarship donors who started pouring money in years ago, and Jay Jacobs, who took a calculated risk in hiring Pearl. Saturday was a culmination of years of building, branding, recruiting, belief and buy in. And from the looks of it, it’s not slowing down any time soon.