Auburn hoops stands at the elite corner of truth, fiction and legend
Truth, meet fiction. This magical Auburn basketball season, equal parts faith, trust and pixie dust (and more practical things that come in 3s), has arrived at Neverland.
After the biggest, largest, hugest, most incredible, indelible, phantasmagorical victory in the program's existence, upon reaching the Sweet 16 and reducing the esteemed North Carolina Tar Heels to a puddle of Crying Jordans, these Tigers can't bask or rest.
They can't fully mourn the heart-wrenching torn ACL of their humble young star, Chuma Okeke, who helped carry them to this point Friday night before his knee could stand no more. They have the hardest 40 minutes dead ahead. This is where the jungle grows the thickest in Neverland.
The Auburn men's basketball program has never won 30 games in a single season -- or reached the Final Four.
The unprecedented, for that school and this state, is all possible Sunday if Bruce Pearl and his 29-9 Lost Boys can find one more stone in their slingshot to shatter one more never: The Auburn men's basketball program has never ended a season for the University of Kentucky, whose seasons are supposed to end with nothing short of scissors and a ladder.
Of course it's Kentucky standing between Auburn and history. To borrow from one more great fable, this isn't Kansas anymore.
This is Kentucky, which ripped the SEC Tournament championship game away from Charles Barkley and the emerging 1984 Auburn Tigers by one lousy bucket.
Kentucky, which prevented Chris Porter and the dominant 1999 Tigers from adding the SEC Tournament title to their regular-season conference championship.
Kentucky, which poured the foundation for the best basketball program in the country ages ago while Auburn was cementing its reputation as perhaps the hardest place to win in the Southeastern Conference.
This is Auburn, which once was forced to move an exhibition game to Columbus, Ga., because some blockhead had scheduled a rock concert in the coliseum without bothering to check with the basketball staff.
Auburn, where an athletics director was asked if he was going to attend the game that night - the home opener for a team coming off a Sweet 16 run - and he replied, "What game?" The AD, naturally, was also the head football coach.
Relevance in roundball in the Loveliest Village has been accomplished in a spectacular way only on occasion by hiring coaches who wouldn't get a sniff from Lexington, Chapel Hill or Lawrence. These quirky personalities all have been road-show vagabonds with an expert's touch in assembling, developing and uniting raw talent. None of them shrank in the shadow of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Pearl fits perfectly in that broken line of succession. Country funny Sonny Smith led the Tigers to an SEC Tournament title, their first five NCAA Tournaments (in a row), two Sweet 16s and the 1986 Elite Eight as he - with considerable assistance from Barkley, Chuck Person, Chris Morris, etc. - demonstrated what was possible on the Plains between football and spring football.
Cliff Ellis and his sweater vest showed that Auburn could win the SEC regular-season championship in the modern era and earn - for the one-and-only time in state history - a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He cobbled together a second, more unlikely Sweet 16 adventure. The marquee stars of his tenure, Porter and Marquis Daniels, like virtually all the best players this program has known, proved to be much more than the sum of their recruiting rankings.
Now here's Pearl, sweating through his suits, with as many enemies outside the Auburn family as he has friends at Toomer's Corner. He's made the most of his second chance and then some with a special backcourt barely bigger than Tinker Bell, a bashful beast in Okeke and a rotation of unselfish role players. This march through March doesn't happen without the jet Jared Harper, the assassin Bryce Brown and so on, but neither does it happen without Pearl.
His haters pray for the existence and emergence of evidence to validate their animus. His true believers respond by chanting "Bruuuce!" all the way to Sunday and Kentucky and an opportunity to go where no Division I men's basketball team in the state of Alabama's proud hoops history has gone.
To a 30th victory. To the Final Four. Right through the smug heart of the Big Blue Nation.
Auburn stands at the place where truth meets fiction.
One more win, and it's legend.
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