The 2017-2018 Auburn men’s basketball season is in the books — and later this year, the rafters.
The latter’s not where anyone outside Bruce Pearl’s locker room expected that season to finish, especially after a preseason exhibition loss to Barry that proved the most misleading bit of foreshadowing since The Sixth Sense. But 26 victories, an SEC championship, and one snapped 15-year NCAA Tournament drought later, Pearl and Co. can claim to have put together one of the best campaigns in Auburn basketball history.
But where exactly does the 2017-2018 season rank among those best campaigns? Here’s one take on the program’s top-five all-time greatest seasons, bearing in mind two things: 1. if you have a different take, dear reader, that’s a-OK 2. we should specify this is a list of Auburn’s greatest men’s basketball seasons, as a list of simply “basketball seasons” would be dominated by Joe Ciampi’s superstar-laden back-to-back-to-back women’s Final Four teams of the 1980s.
Let’s count ’em down:
The only truly difficult question regarding entries Nos. 1-through-4 on the list might be deciding in which order they ought to appear. Picking entry No. 5 is a different matter entirely, though. Should it be Joel Eaves’ 1960 “ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” team — one with no starter taller than 6-foot-3 — that upset Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky en route a 19-3 record and the Tigers’ only SEC championship until 39 years later? Should it be the Marquis Daniels-led 2003 team that went only 8-8 in league play, but took down star-studded St. Joseph’s and second-seeded Wake Forest for just the program’s fourth Sweet 16 berth? Could you build an argument for the 1960 team’s immediate predecessor in 1958-1959, who stretched the program’s two-season winning streak to 30 games, crushed eventual league champion Mississippi State, saw the Tigers climb as high as No. 2 in the polls, and with a record of 20-2 finished well ahead of the more-celebrated 1960 team in Basketball Reference’s SRS power rating?
In the end, though, the choice here is Sonny Smith’s first great team on the Plains in 1983-1984. The Tigers finished second in a rugged SEC, flattened No. 2 Kentucky, earned a 5-seed from the NCAA Tournament selection committee — 34 years later, still the third-highest seed ever received by an Auburn team — and in Chuck Person and SEC Player of the Year-slash-future basketball legend Charles Barkley offered more combined star-power than any Auburn team before or since. Yes, those Tigers suffered a first-round NCAA flameout to Richmond, but the postseason as a whole wasn’t just disappointment — in eliminating Vanderbilt on its home floor, dispatching Tennessee, and falling 51-49 in an epic championship game to a Wildcats team that would make the Final Four, those Tigers put together an SEC Tournament performance Auburn has bettered only one time in its history.
No less an authority than Barkley himself declared this the greatest season in Auburn history, and in terms of defying expectations, he’s absolutely correct; just ask the famous “4-14” t-shirt whose run has finally come to a close. Anfernee McLemore’s injury and late-season slumps from Bryce Brown and Jared Harper meant the Tigers failed to maintain their thrilling midseason theatrics into the postseason, but no matter: only two Auburn men’s basketball teams have ever won both an SEC regular season championship and an NCAA Tournament game, and the Team That Wasn’t Supposed To is one of them.
Ranked 10th in the AP preseason poll, big things were expected for Person, Chris Morris, Frank Ford, and the rest of Smith’s ’85-’86 Tigers. For much of the season it appeared those things weren’t going to materialize, as Auburn claimed just 4 wins in its first 9 games vs. Division I opponents, then undermined a runner-up finish in SEC play with a quarterfinal loss to rock-bottom Mississippi State at the conference tournament. At 19-10 overall, the Tigers were handed an 8 seed by the selection committee and a brutal NCAA Tournament draw — Pac-12 power Arizona, followed by top-seeded (and 1985 Final Four team) St. John’s, and in the unlikely event Auburn survived those two rounds, then Jerry Tarkanian’s 11th-ranked and underseeded UNLV.
Brutal draw, schmutal schmaw. The Tigers ripped through the bracket with double-digit victories over the Wildcats and Johnnies, then tagged the Runnin’ Rebels for 45 second-half points and a 70-63 win. Eventual national champion Louisville proved too much in the Elite Eight, but a loss at the end of the greatest NCAA Tournament run in school history does nothing to keep it from being, you know, the greatest NCAA Tournament run in school history.
No team on this list had a more ambivalent regular season than the ’84-’85 Tigers, who in the wake of Barkley’s departure went 8-10 in the SEC, placed eighth in the league standings, and arrived at the SEC Tournament likely needing four wins in four days to claim a second straight NCAA berth. Which, as you know, was exactly what they did, becoming both the first SEC team to win four games en route to the tournament crown and the only Auburn team to ever win the tournament championship.
But the Tigers weren’t close to done. Given an 11-seed in the Southeast region, the Tigers led Purdue nearly wire-to-wire for the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win, then shocked Larry Brown’s Kansas Jayhawks for the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament win (and first Sweet 16 berth). The Tigers had played six consecutive games to keep their NCAA dreams alive, and won all six. Even after a 62-56 loss to North Carolina, it stands as the greatest postseason run in Auburn history.
How many Auburn basketball fans can’t still name the 1999 starting five by heart? Doc Robinson, Scott Pohlman, Bryant Smith, Chris Porter, Mamadou N’Diaye — the guess here is “almost none.” That’s what happens when you go 26-2 in the regular season with an average margin-of-victory of 18.8 points in your 14 SEC wins, when you claim your first conference championship in 39 years, when you equal the program’s record for highest poll ranking at No. 2 and smash its record for highest seed, when you generate the school’s most legendary dunk (give or take Ford’s clinching dunk in the ’85 SEC Tournament championship):
Nineteen years later the loss to Ohio State still stings, but no matter: with an SEC title, Sweet 16 berth, and more victories than any other team in Auburn history, it’s the 1999 team that’s set the bar for every Tiger team to come.
The good news for Auburn fans? If Austin Wiley, Mustapha Heron and Danjel Purifoy return — or even if they don’t — putting together the fourth-greatest men’s basketball season ever seen on the Plains might be just the beginning.
The post Where does 2017-18 rank among greatest Auburn men’s basketball seasons ever? appeared first on SEC Country.
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