AuburnSports - STULTZ: Rivalry at whole new level thanks to Pearl, Oats
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STULTZ: Rivalry at whole new level thanks to Pearl, Oats

For years, when Auburn and Alabama met on the basketball court, what happened during the 40 minutes of gameplay seemed to be a side distraction from what occurred at halftime: the awarding of the Iron Bowl trophy to the winner when they were hosting. The losing school’s student body president would have to sing the winning school’s fight song (well, most of the time), and the head football coach would say something about controlling the state and how the respective fans are the best in the world.

It was the highlight of these matchups. Well, that isn’t the case anymore. Nope. Not even close. The two games are a must-see for fans of the two teams and now throughout the SEC and nation. It’s a change in the culture at both programs, and it started with Auburn throwing the first big blow with the hiring of Bruce Pearl.

Listen, we have all penned and written odes to how big of a hire Pearl was for the Tigers. His influence in taking Auburn to where it now stands, which is among the nation’s elite, is incredible. Yet that influence has spread to Tuscaloosa. After seeing what the Auburn program became - winning SEC titles, making the Final Four - the powers running Alabama decided they wanted their own program-changer. It’s no coincidence that Auburn’s run through the NCAA Tournament came at the same time as Nate Oats' hiring away from Buffalo by the Tide, and he’s turned the once-stagnant program around in a hurry. The proof is in the pudding, with Alabama sweeping the regular season and tournament conference championships last season.

Bruce Pearl yells at his players during Tuesday's Auburn-Alabama game.
Bruce Pearl yells at his players during Tuesday's Auburn-Alabama game. (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

These games, which used to be a sideshow between the Iron Bowl and spring football, now matter. Look at the atmosphere in Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night as the Tide and Tigers, both ranked, by the way, fought in a thriller. Auburn fans have become so rabid that it sounded like a home game for a part of the battle. Pearl and the Tigers noticed the loud orange-and-blue contingent who swarmed Tuscaloosa for the first of two matchups between these two NCAA Tournament-bound teams.

It’s not just state bragging rights on the table anymore. The stakes have been raised by both Pearl and Oats, now including conference supremacy, tournament seeding and a chance to impress some of the top recruits in the country. Beating the rival always meant a lot, but now, and I apologize and will send a fee to Greg Sankey, it just means more. Sigh. I can’t believe I just typed that, but I digress.

Yet it’s true. While it will never reach the level of the football rivalry between the two schools, it has become a 365-day war at every level. In his first (and let’s be frank, only) chance to quiet a raucous Alabama crowd, Jabari Smith put together quite possibly his best game of the season, coming up with clutch buckets, rebounds and blocks. The Tigers, who took it personally when Tide football players rushed toward their section following the winning two-point conversion in November and doing the karate crane stance, ended the game in the same position as Auburn fans celebrated. Alabama fans left a sporting event majorly upset for the second straight night.

Heck, did they even award the trophy to the Alabama football team last night? If so, I didn’t see it aired as usual on television.

These two schools had despised each other before you and I were born, but the hostility just never was the same when they met on the basketball court. That has changed, and so have expectations for both programs. Pearl was the first domino to drop in making that happen, and they will continue to fall as they two battle for state, SEC and national dominance.

Alabama comes to Auburn Arena on Feb. 1, and an electric crowd will be waiting for them. Football will be the last thing on fans’ minds, and tickets will be at a premium as two of the best teams in the SEC battle once again.

So, you can take your Duke-North Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville, Indiana-Purdue and keep it. But I’ll gladly take Auburn-Alabama as the rivalry on the court has reached a level we never knew possible.