It's not so difficult to remember the last time Auburn had a basketball season like this. It came 10 years ago exactly now, as Cliff Ellis led Doc Robinson, Chris Porter, Scotty Pohlman, Bryant Smith, and Mamadou Ndiaye--I can still spell it without looking it up--to Auburn's last SEC regular season basketball title. No sense in trying to pretend otherwise--watching those '99 Tigers storm from anonymity to the top of the conference and a No. 1 seed was a hell of a thrill.
But those 10 years haven't been kind at all, have they? Even I'd heard the rumors regarding Porter and weed, and I was 20 and living on a different campus. That SI cover is the framed poster for lost promise, the 2000 team he betrayed remembered not for holding the line from the previous year but for his abject refusal to play to its potential. Ellis slowly sank into the mire of JUCO sleaze and unapologetic mercenaries who cared for Auburn ... well, about as much as Ellis did. There's a reason he's currently employed by Coastal Carolina, where he's taken the reasonably solid foundation left him by Buzz Peterson and nosedived the Chanticleers within a game of the Big South cellar. He engineered the first Tiger SEC title in 14 years, had Auburn back in the Sweet 16 only a few years later, and I still could not wait for the day Auburn washed their hands of him.
I bring all those bad memories up for a reason: no one will write a paragraph like the one above about this Auburn women's team 10 years from now. Oh, there'll be a paragraph--bunches of them--and they'll be sure to mention the thrills: the home bludgeoning of Florida that announced "something's happening here"; te crazy day when they turned Beard-Eaves into a Cameron Indoor on the Plains and ran Pat Summitt's bunch clean out of the gym; the desperate, brilliant charge against Vandy that proved that even in defeat they have the kind of heart and guts that comes around only a precious few times in a lifetime; and how with the team's first outright title in 20 years on the line Sunday afternoon, they applied the heel of their boots to Arkansas's throat in the first minute and kept it there for 39 more. No one's forgetting any of that any time soon.
But there's never going to be any shake of the head to go with the remembering, never going to be any "Yeah, but ...". The coach isn't going to start building the program around the Jamison Brewers of the world; she won't need them, anyway. The four graduating seniors aren't going to leave under a haze of pot smoke and underhanded dealings, they're leaving having built the strongest possible foundation for this program and promising to be in each other's weddings. The underclassmen might not set the world on fire a second time next year, but unlike the Ellis era they're still going to show the next generation how hard they're going to have to work to make seasons like 1999 and 2009 happen again.
It's been a long 10 years. After watching what the Auburn women have accomplished this year and how they deservedly claimed their undisputed, unshared league championship on Sunday afternoon, I have no doubt the next 10 are going to seem an awful lot shorter.
I'll be perfectly honest with you: I didn't see this coming. A win? Yeah, I thought Auburn had a decent shot at that, if still less than 50-50 odds given that a good South Carolina team hadn't managed it and that it LSU overtime to escape the Hump with their victory there. But 76-58? 76-58>? Nope, sorry, never thought it, never hoped, never for a moment expected it.
It happened anyway, because--there is no disputing this any longer--this is a good team. Teams that aren't good don't hold top-100 teams to .82 points a possession on the road. They don't draw 10 more free throws than the home team or hit an equal number of threes despite taking 13 fewer of them. They don't collect double-digit steals and force 18 turnovers and lead by 17 at the half and score on 52.2 percent of their possessions.
Now, where was this good team a month ago when a bunch of similar-looking folk in the same jerseys lost to Vandy at home and got drilled in Oxford? Why couldn't this same bunch who just shot over 50 percent from behind the arc in Starkville have shown up when a clearly mediocre Florida team arrived at Beard-Eaves and won by two because the home team shot 5-of-23 from deep? I don't know. And I suspect Jeff Lebo doesn't know either, and sometimes it still makes him want to tear his hair out.
But there's not much point in dwelling on those impostors when the Tigers we saw Saturday looked more real than ever. We can now safely say that it won't take a miracle for Auburn to win the SEC's automatic bid--it'll just take Auburn playing like, well, this Auburn.
Other assorted thoughts:
--Speaking of the SEC tourneys, the women's bracket is up: Auburn's path goes 1. Ole Miss/Arkansas 2. Florida/Tennessee/Alabama 3. Everybody else. As for the men, things couldn't look rosier--thanks to the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs and 'Bama's upset of Ole Miss, Auburn has a de facto two-game lead on the field with two to play. One win clinches the first-round bye. If the season ended today, the path would be 1. Arkansas/Kentucky 2. South Carolina/Ole Miss/Vanderbilt 3. Everybody else. Not bad, though if the East shifts around to the point that LSU and Kentucky (the league's top two teams according to Pomeroy) are on the opposite side of the bracket, even better.
--Goodness gracious goshamighty Frankie Sullivan, what got into you on Saturday? 14 points on five shots, four rebounds, four assists, and even a block, all without a turnover or even a foul? More of that, please--stretching Auburn's "reliable contributor" rotation from seven to eight would be massive, especially since not all of those first seven are alwats that reliable.
--Not much change in the No. 1 seed hunt for the ladies as Louisville and Maryland both swept their past weeks' worth of action. As has been he case since the loss up in Nashville, it appears it'll take a SEC tournament title as well.
--Chantel Hilliard: 5-8 for 11 points and four boards in 14 minutes. I guess the knee's OK. Hard to believe.
--One thing to watch as the NCAAs draw closer is how well the Auburn women are doing from beyond the arc. Most Tournament-quality defenses are probably going to be able to collapse the lane a little better than the Hogs, so this is almost certainly the last time you'll see Auburn shoot all of four threes for an entire game. Bonner hit the only one she took--I know it's not really her shot, but she may have to hit a couple going forward to loosen up the inside for Boddie's drives. She's 3-for-5 over the past three games, so maybe that's a good sign?
--The JCCW will host a chat-style liveblog of the Auburn men's Tuesday night trip to Coleman on ESPN. Set your calendars now!