The roof almost came unglued at the old Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum when Bryant Smith pulled off a reverse dunk on a half-court alley-oop from Doc Robinson.
Auburn was No. 3 and running Ole Miss out of the gym on its way to a 23-1 record to start the 1998-99 season. That was the last time I remember Auburn basketball being that exciting … until now. The Tigers are playing their best basketball since that magical season that saw Chris Porter perform acrobatic acts, Mamadou N’Diaye control the paint and floppy-haired Scotty Pohlman prove that his boyish looks meant nothing when shooting a three.
If you haven’t tuned in, let me give you a quick update: This team is talented, gritty and seems to love playing alongside each other. That last part might be why they are so infectious to watch. Oh, and they currently hold the longest winning streak in Division I at 14 games entering the rivalry game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday.
Tigers fans were promised exactly this when Bruce Pearl was hired in 2014. However, no one could have seen this coming at the beginning of the season. When news broke of the FBI scandal implicating assistant coach Chuck Person and putting the eligibility of both Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy (both starters) in the air, the collective feeling of, “Here we go again!” was palpable from the Plains.
This team held together throughout the fallout, and possibly, made it feel closer having gone through it. Adversity sometimes leads to great success.
Four players — Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper and Desean Murray — average double-figure points. The trio of Murray, Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke help the Tigers average 28.24 defensive rebounds per game, good for 34th in the nation.
This year’s team and the 1998-99 squad share similarities, including those Tigers were also led by four scorers who averaged double digits.
The differences, however, make this year’s version more dangerous. A flaw of the 1998-99 team was free throw shooting, but these gym rats have no problem at the charity stripe: The five players who have played the most minutes all shoot 75 percent or above.
Unlike then, there have also been good wins early on in the season. Beating Middle Tennessee State, a team that likely will make the NCAA Tournament, is no slouch, and the Tigers dominated UConn in a game that was never close. To open SEC play, Pearl and his team went into Knoxville and knocked off No. 23 Tennessee and didn’t let up four days later in a home win against No. 22 Arkansas.
The adage that Auburn could never win at basketball is undergoing a makeover, and it has a lot to do with the players. You would never know that they own that winning streak, or are ranked No. 17 or are now one of the favorites to win the SEC by listening to them talk. In press conferences, the equivalent of “we have to execute” and “we can only get better” are retorted again and again. Don’t expect trash talk out of this bunch even when/if they bust open the doors to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first since 2003.
The main ingredient in this recipe is Pearl, though. The energy he has brought since the moment he stepped on campus has been unavoidable. Even during the first few years when the Tigers struggled, his charisma and willingness to go the extra step to get fans excited about Auburn basketball was unique.
Unlike the late 90s, when the excitement simmered out, this shouldn’t be a flash-in-the-pan moment. Out of the Tigers’ top-9 contributors, zero are seniors, and only four are upperclassmen. Add in the fact that Wiley will be eligible next season as just a sophomore, and this run of success isn’t close to ending. (Purifoy, a sophomore, has yet to have his eligibility determined by the NCAA.)
Memories of that team now close to 20 years ago, the old arena, the names of Porter, Robinson, Bryant and N’Diaye will continue to be fondly remembered by Auburn fans, but it is time for a new team to mark its stamp on the history of this program.
This could be that team, and it could easily change the way we talk about Auburn basketball for a long time.