Behind Auburn's magical SEC title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Malik Dunbar laid on the ground covered in confetti with a cardboard cutout of the SEC logo. His smile, as it always is, was the widest of anyone in Bridgestone Arena. His small forward colleague Samir Doughty saw him laying there and jumped off the championship stage to join Dunbar in reveling in the almost surreal moment. Bryce Brown, not to be left out, dove in as well.
And the three began to yell the same thing together.
"We ain't done yet! We ain't done yet!" they shouted in unison.
What they'd done up to that point, however, was remarkable. Unbelievable, almost.
Even after the victory, a 20-point annihilation of a potential No. 1 seed Tennessee, Auburn's players seemed to be dumbfounded by what they just witnessed. They weren't alone. The Tennessee faithful — who made up probably 95 percent of the "neutral-site" crowd — certainly couldn't as they marched toward the exits with three minutes still on the clock. Those who have watched and covered this team all year shared similar surprise.
The Tigers put together an unheard-of run as far as Auburn basketball lore goes.
Four games, four days, four wins.
"Those last four seconds of the game, I just couldn't believe we got the W," Dunbar said. "We weren't even talking to each other. We were just smiling, couldn't believe what we were seeing, watching the end of the game. Every time we hit a shot, we felt closer and closer. It was just a good feeling. I wouldn't want to feel it with any other group."
The tightness of this specific group couldn't be more obvious.
It was tested early in the SEC title game — and in the most trying way possible. Jared Harper picked up his second foul two minutes into the game. Bruce Pearl called it a "blessing in disguise." He entered the game planning to limit Harper's minutes to a maximum of 32. Little did he know, fate would only give Harper two first-half minutes because of foul trouble.
Auburn has struggled for two years to win games when Harper isn't at his best. It's a burden Pearl references often. Two minutes into the biggest game of the season, the plan shifted dramatically.
J'Von McCormick, who was in JUCO at this time last year, was called upon. In the 18 minutes that followed, Auburn went on a 27-13 run to close out the half. The Tigers took a nine-point halftime lead despite shooting 25 percent from 3-point range and, for most of it, without its typical game-deciding player.
"We don't win the SEC Tournament championship in 2019 without J'Von McCormick," Pearl said. "We recruited J'Von straight up knowing he'd have a chance to challenge those guys [Harper and Brown], but he knew he'd probably have to back them up. He was OK with that. He's done an amazing job with it. It's a great lesson in the sense that everyone is so busy trying to make the right decision instead of trying to make the decision they made work."
For McCormick, it was confirmation he chose Auburn over a place where he could've played a bigger role.
"It just feels so unreal. I just knew my whole life I was an underdog. Coming here, I knew we were all going to be an underdog. I just wanted show everybody what we could do as a family," McCormick said. "It's definitely validation. All of us could've went anywhere. We all were all brought here for this reason right here to shock the world."
It wouldn't have been possible without Auburn's defensive effort.
The Tigers forced 17 turnovers and 14 steals. Per KenPom, Auburn leads all of college basketball in turnover percentage. The SEC title clincher put that on a national stage. In the first half alone, Auburn won the turnover battle 12-3. Every other possession seemed to have some kind of deflection or at least some kind of shot affecting on the defensive end.
Pearl, a self-proclaimed "huge Auburn football fan," cited a conversation he had with defensive coordinator Kevin Steele this offseason. It has become part of the basketball team's approach and identity this season on the defensive end.
"I spent some time with Kevin Steele in the offseason. I asked Kevin, who is the best defensive coordinator in all of college football, I asked him, 'What makes the defense so unique? What makes it so special?'" Pearl said. "Kevin will deflect all the credit himself. It's not about the formations. It's not about the packages. He said, 'We're going to pursue the ball relentlessly.' When you hear him say it, you have no question that his defense is going to pursue the ball relentlessly. If you won't, somebody else will. Period, the end. We are undersized. Deshaun Davis is undersized. Right? But he's going to pursue the ball relentlessly. That's the way Auburn's defense plays. That's the way our defense has started to play. That's responsible for this March run."
To close it out, Auburn needed a crisp second half.
The Tigers got it.
A nine-point lead stretched to as much as 23 points. Harper got back on the court and orchestrated the offense. Chuma Okeke played like the future pro that he is — something Pearl and Brown both alluded to on the post-game podium — finishing with 18 points and 13 boards. Bryce Brown, later named SEC Tournament most valuable player, dropped a game-high 19 points and seemed to hit a big shot whenever Auburn needed it.
The win meant more for the program than just 2019 season. It's the first time since 1985 the Tigers have gone back to Auburn as SEC Tournament champions. Auburn legendary play-by-play announcer and former coach Sonny Smith was on the sideline the last time the Tigers accomplished as much. He sat there again, amazed at what these team has accomplished, how Pearl has altered this program.
"This establishes this program as one of the best in the SEC. You could see it from the get-go. This program is going to go beyond '85 because they've established it with really young players. They're going to be back. They got everything going for them. They're going to have a great recruiting year coming in. After ours, we faded away, and I left the program. Well he's not going to leave this program. It's going to be great for Auburn," Smith said. "I knew Bruce Pearl wouldn't come to a place where he couldn't build a program. He was doing great in television. But he took this one. He knew what he could do here. This is it. This is a big deal right here."
Auburn closed out the win and celebrated accordingly. When they made it back to the locker room, the celebration hadn't deteriorated much. Dunbar was FaceTiming family and made sure all of his teammates were in the frame so all of his family could enjoy it together. Every player credited somebody else for the win. All 10 rotational players served an integral role in Auburn's title run, capping off the pre-NCAA Tournament season on an eight-game win streak.
Amid the celebration, however, Dunbar wanted to re-iterate something to make it clear — something he'd said as he laid on the floor with Doughty and Brown, covered in confetti.
"We ain't done yet," Dunbar smiled. "We ain't done yet."