It has been over 30 years since the Auburn Tigers made their last Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The 12 point loss to Louisville was the only time that the Tigers had ever been that deep into the playoffs, until now. A win today will mean that they advance to the Final Four and reach uncharted territory.
In less than an hour, the Auburn Tigers will square off against the Kentucky Wildcats in a familiar SEC match-up. The Tigers are 0-2 against this team this year and will now have to face them without arguably their best player in Chuma Okeke. However, this is an entirely different team than the last time that the two have matched up.
The Tigers are currently on an 11-0 run and have the longest active win streak of the remaining teams in the tournament. The last time that they lost, was a 27-point, embarrassing blow out to their upcoming opponent. That game ultimately has become a defining moment for this team. A team with high hopes created by the media, seemed to start strong and end the regular season a little sluggish. Since then, they found their will power; a willingness to fight for, not only themselves, but for each other. The huge blowout had them playing the underdog role in the latter half of the SEC Tournament, and they made a statement. No one saw them blowing out a top-notch Tennessee team by 22. Sleeping on them has only seemed to awaken their eye of the tiger from within.
The NCAA Tournament got off to a rocky start. They almost gave the first round away to New Mexico State, but they found a way to hold on and advance. Next up: Kansas. Kansas was regarded as the top team in the nation before the season started, and played as such before falling off mid way-through the season. They found some rhythm and dismantled their first round opponent, but they could not keep up with the Tigers. Auburn splashed them with threes over and over all night long. They gave the Jayhawks their largest half time deficit ever in their history in the tournament. With the game in hand, the Tigers began to let the big lead slip away, but still won convincingly.
That win ultimately seemed to have put the Auburn brand out their nationally as it shocked many; not only the win, but the size of it. Most fans would have been content with the win and would have said that the win was a solid stamp for this team and a job well done for the season. However, these guys were not ready to finish dancing. Facing a team that many assumed would win the tournament, the Tigers had their hands full with North Carolina. The media claimed that this Tar Heels team does the same thing that the Tigers do, but better and more athletically. That didn’t sit well with the Tigers and they came out there wanting to prove a point; and they did. Auburn played with heart and determination, ultimately throttling one of the tournament’s best teams by 17! It did come with a price nontheless. Mid-way through the second half, playing his best game thus far, Chuma Okeke went down with a non-contact injury. The injury ultimately costs him the rest of the season as he has torn his ACL.
These Tigers won’t quit. When Okeke went down, the lead was only 10. After his injury, the lead grew as large as 22 at one point. Kentucky is awaiting them for today’s matchup and they’re at full health. Their best player has returned at the most opportune time for the Wildcats. They want to end Auburn’s story book run. “Why not us?” is the new phrase for this Tigers team and they will heavily rely on each other if they want to, yet again, slay another Goliath.