Mark Wiedmer: Auburn just might still be No. 1 after the Final Four

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Jan. 25—No disrespect to Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who just guided the Bulldogs to their first national championship in 41 years, but the guy he just beat to claim that crown — Alabama's Nick Saban — is almost universally regarded as that sport's best coach of this time, if not of all-time.

But could the best college basketball coach of this season, at the very least, also reside in Alabama, though roughly 97 miles to the east of Saban's Tuscaloosa home?

Has anyone, anywhere ever done a better job of turning a football school into a basketball behemoth than Auburn's Bruce Pearl, whose Tigers are ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history in the newest Associated Press poll?

Beyond that, if you can get past his occasional missteps with the NCAA at every Division I program he's coached, is there anyone, anywhere more certain to not only build a winning program, but build one that wildly excites its fan base than Bruce Almighty?

Because winning and making it fun to watch aren't the same things. If so, former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin — the man whose unfortunate task it was to follow Pearl at UT when he was forced out due to NCAA violations — might still call Knoxville home.

The fans didn't make Martin feel unwelcome because he didn't win — the Vols reached the NCAA tourney's Sweet 16 his final year with the program — they didn't embrace him as they had Pearl because his guarded personality and style of play.

And however fun Big Orange hoops was under Pearl — and it's never been that fun before or since — Auburn is arguably twice as exciting if only because the gym the Tigers play in is half the size of UT's Thompson-Boling Arena. Think Duke's cozy, crazy Cameron Indoor Stadium with high-tech amenities and Pearl as the overzealous head cheerleader and you have the general picture of Auburn Arena on game day.

Yet unlike Duke, Auburn's supposed to be a FOOTBALL SCHOOL.

Much as Scott Drew guided Baylor to last year's NCAA title, Pearl is on a path to prove that the right coach can win it all anywhere.

"The No. 1 ranking matters because it's historical," Pearl said Monday. "I'm very happy for Auburn. I'm very happy for my coaches and our players to have been been able to achieve that. That said, we got a lot of work to do."

Work is what Pearl does best. At Boston College he once wore the Eagles mascot uniform for an NCAA tourney game in 1981 because the student who regularly did the job got sick. Fully embracing his new role, Pearl was almost banned by the NCAA after standing on a ladder near the free throw line in the Eagles outfit to distract Ball State foul shooters in the opening round.

"I broke like five NCAA rules," Pearl would later joke.

He's infamously taken the shirt off his back and painted his chest — as he did at least once at a UT Lady Vols game — to charge up the crowd. When it comes to marketing the athletic department that employs him, he's a one-man Greatest Show on Earth.

And these Tigers are undeniably fun to watch. They go 10 deep with almost no noticeable drop off after the starting five. They have the potential overall No. 1 NBA Draft pick in freshman phenom Jabari Smith, who is often compared to Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant when Durant was still a teenager. They have wing Allen Flanigan, who should also have a lengthy NBA career. They have seven-footer Walker Kessler, the North Carolina transfer, to protect the rim on defense and tear it down on offense, given that seven of eight field goals in last Saturday's win over Kentucky came on rim-rattling dunks.

But mostly, they have Pearl, who is such a gifted coach that the late, great Pat Summitt used to pick his brain for advice, especially on situational basketball, such as out-of-bounds plays and such.

Does this mean Auburn has what it takes to win it all this year? Absolutely. Will they? As always, that will likely depend on injuries, the luck of the tourney draw and whether or not their large collection of 3-point shooters all go cold on the same night.

But the schedule is favorable — the Tigers play neither Kentucky nor LSU on the road and they've already won at Alabama — and they seem to be getting better by the week.

Moreover, at their current pace — they've won 15 straight games — they may not only receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, they may also earn the overall No. 1 seed, which would theoretically give them the easiest draw to win it all.

When Pearl arrived at Auburn in the spring of 2014, he began to talk about making history. There's even a sign made of shiny metal letters near the Tigers' locker room that says "Make AU History." And Pearl did just that at the close of the 2019 season when he reached the school's first-ever Final Four. But for two highly questionable officiating calls at the close of their national semifinal loss to eventual national champ Virginia, he might have already won it all.

But this is a far better team than that one was at the same point in the season. It is also a better team than the Tennessee squad Pearl guided to No. 1 in the polls in February of 2008.

Asked to compare his two No. 1 squads on Monday, Pearl told the Associated Press: "What I can tell you I like more is how much they enjoy playing with each other, and how close they are off the court."

If that doesn't change between now and the Final Four, neither might the team currently at the top of college hoops.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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