AUBURN, Ala. — After it was all over, and No. 2 Auburn had extended its winning streak to 15 games Saturday afternoon with an 80-71 victory over No. 12 Kentucky, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl joined me for a postgame interview live on CBS. At this point, players were celebrating in the stands with fans. Some still had their jerseys on. Others were topless. The sold-out crowd had been whipped into a complete frenzy. So, naturally, I asked Pearl about our surroundings — and his response was just about perfect.
“Look at the kids. Look at our students. Look at our players,” Pearl said, with a big smile on his face. “And, Gary, that’s what it’s all about right there. And what I’m so excited about is that I know this happens in North Carolina. I know it happens in Kansas and other places. This is happening in Auburn, Alabama.
“Listen, we’re a football school!” Pearl yelled. “But we’re also an EVERYTHING school.”
No argument here.
The biggest game in Auburn Arena history will soon be known as the game that propelled the Tigers to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in history. That’s my prediction. So all of the celebrating happening here at Auburn on Saturday will likely calm a bit Sunday and then restart Monday when the AP Top 25 poll updates. History will — or, at least, history definitely should — be made.
Remember, the Tigers received 11 more first-place votes than Gonzaga last Monday but still finished four points behind the Zags in the AP poll, in part because a couple of voters placed Auburn sixth and ninth on ballots with the presumed explanation being that even though Auburn had what most considered to be the nation’s best resume, sixth or ninth was more in line, at the time, with where certain predictive metrics (like KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com) were ranking the Tigers. But that’s no longer true. After Saturday’s win, Auburn is up to No. 5 at KenPom.com and at BartTorvik.com. So regardless of whether you’re an AP voter who ranks teams based on their resumes or an AP voter who ranks teams with predictive metrics in mind, there’s basically nothing still suggesting Auburn should be outside of the top five on a ballot.
That’s why Auburn should close that four-point gap.
That’s why Auburn should move to No. 1.
The Tigers are now 18-1 overall, 7-0 in the SEC and tied with Davidson for the sport’s longest winning streak. More importantly, they’re 6-1 in Quadrant 1 and 4-0 in Quadrant 2 — or 10-1 in the first two quadrants with wins over five top-30 KenPom teams. Only Baylor has as many Quadrant 1 wins. Nobody has a better record inside the first two quadrants. And the Tigers remain the only team that still hasn’t lost in regulation. The lone loss is a double-overtime loss to UConn on a neutral court nearly two months ago.
That’s a strong body of work.
Yes, it should be noted that Kentucky lost five-star freshman TyTy Washington in the first half to a left ankle injury, and there’s no denying that’s where things started to flip. The Wildcats were up nine points when Washington left the game for good; they lost by nine points. That’s an 18-point swing in the final 28:24 of the game that underscores just how crucial it is for Washington to heal and get back on the court, ASAP.
But that shouldn’t take away from Auburn’s incredible day.
Students camped out, entered the arena early, got a pep talk from Pearl about 90 minutes before tip-off, and helped create an awesome environment. Walker Kessler led the Tigers with 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Jabari Smith added 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Auburn shot 56.8% from the field, 37.5% from 3-point range, and 82.8% from the free-throw line. Those are the kind of numbers that lead to wins, and these are the kind of wins that often lead to unprecedented achievements.
As I wrote Friday, among the first things you see when you walk into Auburn’s locker room is a sign that says “Make History.” On Saturday, Auburn enhanced an already impressive body of work with a win over the SEC’s historically best program. Now, on Monday, the Tigers should do exactly what that sign says.