Season’s End

Monday, April 4, 2022

Season’s End

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser

Late thoughts on what this year meant for Auburn.

Tonight the college basketball season ends, and I’ve got mixed feelings about the entire thing.

On one hand, Auburn had a fantastic season, a banner season, and the Tigers reaped the awards and benefits that go along with a championship campaign. However, it’s tough to deal with the fact that our guys went out with such a whimper a couple weeks ago. That’s why it’s taken so long to write about this, it’s difficult to reconcile your emotions after a marathon season ends in one forty-minute game.

Let’s start with the good. This season saw Auburn achieve heights that it had literally never achieved before. The Tigers got to be the number one team in the country, and despite the ending to the season, absolutely were the best team in the land for that few week stretch as they climbed the polls. We saw them come back to earth and maybe start playing more inside their heads as they tried to work from the hunted role instead of the hunter role. We’d seen Auburn get as high as second in the rankings back before the vast majority of the students filling the Jungle were born, and Bruce Pearl had gotten the Tigers ranked as high as 4th in the land in 2020 (not to mention stints in the top ten in each of the previous two seasons before that as well).

Much of the success of a number-one team comes from the fact that the Tigers had a transcendent player in the front court in Jabari Smith, who may end up being the top overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He ended up as the Auburn’s second consensus All-American in history, after Chris Porter in 1999.

In addition to the All-American honors, Jabari Smith earned recognition with the following awards:

  • SEC All-Freshman Team
  • 1st Team All-SEC
  • NABC Freshman of the Year
  • USBWA Freshman of the Year

And he’ll certainly become a household name in the NBA with his shooting stroke, continuing Bruce Pearl’s string of draftees. Since Chuma Okeke got selected by the Magic, Pearl has risen the stock of his star players and gotten them into the NBA. After Okeke, Isaac Okoro, Sharife Cooper, and J.T. Thor, he’ll add Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler to his resume with this upcoming draft.

Speaking of Walker Kessler, the Auburn center announced yesterday that he was entering his name into the NBA Draft, and heading out from the Plains. After spending a year at North Carolina, he came to Auburn and just ended up becoming the SEC and National Defensive Player of the Year along with All-American selections from the AP and USBWA. He’s going to head out but not before Auburn replenished the front court with the addition of another five-star prospect in Yohan Traore, a former LSU commit who picked Auburn after the departure of Will Wade. Bruce Pearl has Auburn in a restocking mode at this point, putting together probably his best recruiting class with the second-highest rated prospect in school history (behind only Jabari Smith). He’s not finished yet, either, as Traore’s commit buddy Julian Phillips may also choose Auburn to fully replenish the five-star vacancies in the front court for the Tigers.

All that’s to say, Auburn is going to add banners and hardware and memories of the Jungle being packed and clowning on other schools who came in and found out. The 2021-2022 season was hilariously fun at times, and even when Auburn lost, we never really thought that the season was over. At Arkansas, we didn’t have Zep Jasper. We didn’t win in Gainesville because we never do. We lost to Tennessee but they were exorcising several years of Bruce Pearl demons. When we lost to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament you thought it was just a stupid arena that nobody could shoot in and we just ran into the hottest team in the conference. There were valid excuses for every loss, and things that didn’t seem to be a big deal.

Still, we also noticed that the guard play wasn’t great at times, and no matter if we won or not, there were going to be stretches offensively where Auburn just couldn’t seem to buy a bucket. The offense didn’t flow through Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler like it probably should have, and there just wasn’t that dude that could drive to the hoop and get you a bucket when you absolutely needed one. We had no real creators, and that was troubling.

Shooting like we did against Jacksonville State, I was very confident about the game against Miami. Previously, Auburn got to the NCAA Tournament and had trouble shooting against Charleston and then got dunked on by Clemson in the second round. From my viewpoint, everyone played well in the opening game, and Auburn looked loose and well-oiled coming into the Miami meeting. Unfortunately, every single one of our warts bloomed that night, with the experienced Hurricane guards hassling us into turnovers, and we saw something that had never happened before — both of our All-Americans lost their shot. It spelled doom and just like that, the season was over.

I guess it’s the fickle nature of the NCAA Tournament and college basketball as a whole. Basically, there are only a handful of schools that end the season with a win. In college football, you can have a good year, make a nice bowl game, win, and push forward with momentum into the next spring. With hoops, your season ends in one forty-minute game, sometimes on one possession, one shot, one minute of basketball. And then it’s gone. Like dying in your sleep, you just don’t get to do anymore. The buildup of emotions and the subsequent letdown doesn’t allow you to process things.

And if you’re on any sort of a championship track, there’s no special treatment. You have to win six games just like everyone else, and they all start at the same time. With football, you’ve got a month to enjoy a conference title (presumably) before the Playoff starts, and you can take a breather and then gear back up after the holidays for the real tests. With basketball, you’re putting everything on the line all season long to build a resume, then you have to do it again in a conference tournament atmosphere, and then just a few days later you do it again for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

There’s no other game in which fortunes can change so much from hand to hand. A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt, and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him. This is why the World Series of Poker is decided over a No-Limit Hold ‘Em table. Some people, pros even, won’t play No-Limit. They can’t handle the swings. But there are others, like Doyle Brunson, who consider No-Limit the only pure game left. Like Papa Wallenda said, ”Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.”

That’s why we love it. During the regular season, redemption is just two or three days away. You have an almost immediate chance to right your wrongs and get things back in order. Then, all of a sudden, failure means death. It’s enough to drive a person to Madness.

Watching the games on Saturday night, I got wistful. While Duke and North Carolina were going up and down the floor, I got the flashbacks of a heroic Bryce Brown pulling Auburn back into the lead against Virginia, and Anfernee McLemore mouthing “For Chuma” as he buried clutch free throws late. We’ll get to watch a Kansas team tonight that has multiple players that had no idea what to do against Auburn when they met in 2019. Maybe it would’ve happened again if we’d earned the chance to face them this season. Oh well, we’ll never know.

Just because Auburn lost and didn’t achieve the heights we all expected they would during the course of the season isn’t a reason to go back inside your turtle shell. Part of the allure and fun of this season was the fact that Peacocking became such a phenomenon. If sports can’t be fun, then what’s the actual point of being a fan? Our actions have zero effect on what the team does except for the two hours they’re playing in front of us in the arena. What better way to get amped to be loud for them than to actually enjoy being fans every other day of the week? In the words of Ryan Sterritt earlier this year:

Sports are supposed to be fun. Who cares who won the national title last night? If it wasn’t Auburn, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. In front of us is a team that is elite, and is infinitely fun to watch play basketball. It may not be a Kentucky roster with 8 NBA players, and they likely won’t win every single game they play this year. And?

Your job as a fan isn’t to go one game at a time, to keep everything in front of you. You don’t have to focus on only the game being played next, because you aren’t the one on the court. Your job is to be loud, flamboyant, obnoxious, and uniquely Auburn, whether you’re a student in the Jungle, sitting in the upper deck, watching at home, or engaging on Twitter.

Who cares what everyone else thinks? If you’re going to use Auburn losing in the NCAA Tournament as the reigning SEC Champion with future draft picks on the roster as an excuse not to have fun, or if you think that some cosmic karma is going to come back on us with the memes and all of the fun we had this year and you think we should be a wine and cheese bunch, well...

The 2021-2022 basketball season ends tonight, and Auburn’s story is done. Bring out your bucket hats, Peacock all you want, give War Eagles, watch highlights, and enjoy the ride. We’ll see you back in November for another few months of fun.

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