Auburn earned a 94-84 road victory over No. 23 Tennessee on Tuesday night as the Tigers dominated at times against one of the SEC’s better teams.
It was the first win for Auburn at Tennessee in 20 years — a victory that Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl is surely pleased with since it came against his former employer. The win was also, undoubtedly, the biggest win of the season for Auburn, who now sits at a very surprising 13-1. The Tigers certainly deserve credit for their 11-game winning streak — the third longest in the country. Their best win before Tuesday was also against an underwhelming UConn team that has struggled against quality opponents.
So what do we make of this Auburn team now?
This wasn’t supposed to be a team that would factor into the SEC race. Not only has Auburn struggled to forge a winning culture under Pearl, but the program (along with Pearl himself) has dealt with significant scrutiny this season thanks to Auburn’s involvement in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.
Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested in September and was later indicted by a federal grand jury. The Tigers opened its exhibition season with a loss to Division II Barry University. Former highly-touted recruits like Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have been forced to sit out as the FBI’s investigation plays out. Pearl himself has reportedly been unwilling to cooperate during the school’s internal investigation.
And none of that completely ridiculous off-court chaos that seems made for an HBO drama matters to Auburn so far.
The Tigers won in impressive fashion on Tuesday night thanks to their ability to control the glass on the offensive end. Finishing with 22 offensive rebounds, Auburn pounded the Vols on the interior and maintained a lead despite a cold start from three-point territory.
Then the Tigers got hot and dominated for a solid stretch of the second half. Knocking down four three-pointers in a matter of minutes — three of which came off of offensive rebounds — the flurry of points was all that Auburn needed to pull ahead and secure a quality SEC road win. Balanced scoring was also a big factor for Auburn in the win over Tennessee as five players finished in double-figures — led by Jared Harper and Bryce Brown finishing with 18 points each.
Even missing two of its four top scorers from last season in Purifoy and Wiley, Auburn still has what appears to be plenty of SEC-caliber talent. Four players are averaging double-figures and there are plenty of capable pieces left to work with. The Tigers are not going to be an easy out for anybody in a significantly stronger SEC this season.
And the credit has to go to Pearl and the Tigers.
While other FBI-affected programs like Arizona and USC have hit some bumps in the road this season, the Tigers have never slowed down after a November neutral-court loss to Temple. Pearl has always been a noted recruiter who can bring in highly-touted talent. Now, finally, in year four with the Tigers, those talented players are playing hard and with a lot of confidence despite all of the turmoil within the program.
Auburn still has work to do if they want to compete for the SEC title and make their first NCAA tournament since 2003. Their weak non-conference schedule means they can’t go on a big losing streak. But Tuesday marked the first time all season that Auburn was a team that we were paying attention to for what they were doing on the court instead of the headlines away from it.
After the loss to Division II Barry, who saw that coming?