One. Ask Tiger fans for the defining moment of the 2021-2022 Auburn men’s basketball season (thus far), and answers will vary widely. Fans have many fine jaw-dropping options. So it feels odd mine isn’t a basketball play at all.
Mine occurred during a timeout with 5:49 remaining in the first half of Auburn’s win in Coleman Coliseum. Wendell Green Jr. had just thrown a lob to Devan Cambridge for the usual emphatic lob-to-Cambridge result, extending Auburn’s lead to 29-23, and forcing Nate Oats to call a timeout. As Green strode towards the bench one of his teammates met him at midcourt, snarling, chest-bumping, hype-manning Green to the fullest extent permissible.
Despite the obvious intensity of this moment, however, it wouldn’t have been out of place in any important college basketball game. Pumping up their teammates after good plays is what good teammates do. It’s a moment you’d expect even Auburn fans to have long since forgotten, if the teammate hyping Green to the rafters wasn’t Jabari Smith Jr.
It’s not hyperbole to tell you Smith is — at minimum — one of the 150-or-so most purely talented basketball players alive on this planet. That Smith is not already earning millions of dollars playing nightly minutes as the long-awaited savior for some misbegotten NBA franchise is a ludicrous joke the Association should have had the decency to quit playing on prospects of Smith’s caliber years ago. But they keep telling it, and to be fair I’ve laughed at Smith’s preposterousness this season more times than I can count.
But however much fun Auburn fans have had watching Smith does not change that the fact that a player of Smith’s gifts was under no obligation to provide us with more than the barest minimum of it. Smith could’ve played for any college program in the country. He could have played for any number of professional teams on this continent or others. He could have joined the Auburn roster and floated through this season like an airline passenger absentmindedly browsing the best-seller shelves at Hudson News, just waiting to be carried off to his next destination, as many one-and-dones have. And Auburn would have to accept that. He’s Jabari Smith. He’ll never play for a basketball team that he needs more than it needs him.
From the beginning, Bruce Pearl and basketball reporters and Smith’s former teammates and Smith’s current teammates (in short, everyone) assured us No, he’s different. But those assurances can only mean so much for a player like Smith — no one’s going to go on record saying “yeah, that teenager with an NBA All-Star future on whom so many careers and championships are riding, he’s actually an asshole.” We’ve heard many times before that Player X is “too good of a teammate” not because Player X is, in fact, a good teammate at all, but because he is extremely good at basketball.
5:49 left, first half in Coleman. Look:
It’s not just about talent. You need commitment. It’s not just about commitment. You need talent.
Look at Jabari Smith fly off the bench and roar at his teammate in celebration of his teammates’ play. Tell me any other college basketball team in this country has enjoyed a greater level of commitment from players with a greater level of talent.
I don’t believe you.
Two. How the hell did I come to think team chemistry when considering this team’s greatest strengths, given this team only began existing last summer?
That’s a minor exaggeration; of the 11 players with enough time to register on Kenpom’s Auburn page, six of them were on Auburn’s roster last season. But the Venn diagram of the six players Bruce Pearl selected to close out the final two SEC wins that won this program another championship and those six 2020-2021 holdovers has only one player’s worth of overlap.
That one player, of course, is Allen Flanigan. But even he wasn’t part of the lineup that swung the game at Mississippi State. Those five players played for five different teams last season: Walker Kessler at North Carolina, KD Johnson at Georgia, Zep Jasper at College of Charleston, Green at Eastern Kentucky, Smith at Sandy Creek High School.
But those five have spent the season performing as if they spent 2020-2021 playing in Pearl’s driveway. Even more peculiar, those five blended seamlessly with the returnees — Green hoisting oops to Cambridge, Flanigan funneling desperate ballhandlers to Kessler’s waiting jaws, Cardwell and Johnson each finding the only other player at this level as delightfully unhinged as himself.
We could call that serendipity. (Excuse me: serAUndipity.) But we’ll be more accurate calling it Pearl and his staff’s greatest strength as a coach: the ability to identify and recruit not only the players who can perform together in his system, but the players who can immediately come together to form one team in his locker room. Oh, and creating the player-first atmosphere in which they seamlessly do so.
In college hoops’ portal era, there aren’t many greatest strengths you’d rather your coach possess, are there? Bruce Pearl’s enjoyed his best-ever season in 2021-2022 because he’s the perfect coach for college basketball in 2021-2022.
Three. So, the commitment is there. The chemistry is there. Let’s now make more of a point that the talent is there as well, and not just in the person of Smith.
The best way I know to make that point is to look at Jaylin Williams’ place in the rotation. Williams is a sensational player: a sound defender, talented passer, capable scorer and eye-popping athlete. (Remember that?) On no less than a quarter of the Auburn men’s basketball teams in my lifetime, Williams would be the Tigers’ unquestioned offensive hub and widely-recognized best player.
On this team he’s played 42 minutes over the past 5 games. Things are not at all the way they used to be.
Four. A confession: I endorsed Pearl bringing in KD Johnson. But I wasn’t excited about Pearl bringing in KD Johnson.
I’ve seen enough postseason basketball at multiple levels to know every roster can use one conscienceless gunner who can generate bushels of shots (and sometimes even make them) without any corresponding uptick in turnovers. When defenses reach their highest levels of engagement and coordination, there’s a lot of value in players who score in ways — say, off-the-dribble stepbacks from 25 feet — that make what the defense does irrelevant.
But acknowledging the value in Johnson’s game isn’t the same as embracing its aesthetics. I’m a basketball fan who prefers beautiful passes over difficult shots, ball movement over iso-ball, CP3 over Kobe, Jokic over Embiid, Jared Harper over Cam Thomas … and, back in August, Wendell Green Jr. over KD Johnson.
What I didn’t realize is that Johnson, yes, may not have a conscience. But he also doesn’t have an off-switch. Or a sense of shame. Or body fat. Or the slightest modicum of fear. Or any personality trait or physical handicap that could keep him from being one of the uniquely riveting Auburn basketball players I’ve had the pleasure of … “watching” seems inadequate. “Experiencing” seems more accurate.
Johnson is the sparkplug by which all future players called a “sparkplug” shall have their sparkplugginess measured. He’s far, far from perfect — he could still stand to move the ball more, yes, and the passes he does make could stand to be a little safer — but perfection ain’t the point. The aesthetics ain’t the point. A player this weird, this maniacal, this sticky-fingered, this fearless makes his own aesthetics. God bless him.
Five. For all Johnson’s, ah, eccentricities, he fits this Auburn roster like a swaggerific glove. For one thing, like his teammates, he is very good at basketball. For another, most of his teammates — like him — are … engagingly off-kilter.
Smith is from planet Pflexthon 5. Kessler’s a 7-foot-1 National Defensive Player of the Year whose hobbies include stealing the ball at midcourt and Eurostepping into a finger-roll finish. Jasper is inside your shirt right now. Cambridge isn’t actually a human being so much as the the noise the Auburn Arena crowd makes when a Tiger dunks transmuted into human form, then sent among us to create that noise as often as possible. Dylan Cardwell is a perfectly normal backup center who blocks shots and sets screens and finishes lobs and, oh, will also one beautiful November day rip his jersey in half after an and-1 to push Auburn’s lead to 34-18 over Kennesaw State.
Much of the “let’s compare this great Auburn team to a previous great Auburn team” chatter has focused on the Final Four team, and not without reason — “can this Pearl team do things that his previous best team couldn’t” has been the animating question of the season since the moment they beat Kentucky. But the Tiger squad this team reminds me of most belonged to Cliff Ellis.
Part of the similarity to the ’99ers is the dominance. (These are, without question, the two best regular-season teams in Auburn men’s basketball’s modern history.) Part of it is how unforeseen that dominance was. (Ellis had Doc, Mamadou, Scottie, Smith and Daymeon in ’98, too. They went 16-14 [7-9] and lost in the NIT second round.) Part of it is that the ’99 team was also on the offbeat side. A no-nonsense floor general in Doc, OK, surrounded by … The World’s Tallest and Longest Man, a $250 fireworks canister from your local roadside stand in sneakers, and an 11-year-old who won a roster spot in his middle school’s free throw-shooting contest*.
“Let’s not talk football” sounds familiar indeed:
My great regret involving the 1999 team was that as a cash-unflush college student living mostly in Birmingham, I never saw the above show in person. But at least I spent enough time levitating in my dorm room after another Bryant Smith megajam that I could recognize when the show had returned.
And so, last Saturday, I brought my youngest daughter to see it (and my pathetically old phone to take bad pictures of it). She’ll have to pay her own way through college given what the tickets cost, but she’ll understand. When you might have to wait 23 years for a team both this heart-swellingly dominant and thrillingly sui generis to come along again, some choices aren’t really choices at all.
Six. There’s one problem with raising the otherwise joyous specter of 1999: that postseason. Not a total loss, of course — obliterating Alabama by 32 in the Georgia Dome and Pohlman putting Oklahoma State to sleep with a 28-spot sure as hell aren’t nothing — but scoring 57 points in a not-especially-competitive SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Kentucky before going out in the Sweet 16 wasn’t what anyone had in mind.
But watching Ohio State slip out of reach isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of that team, or the third, or the sixth or the tenth. I can’t say “I don’t care” about what happens to this Auburn team in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments when I care far more than is good for me, of course. But I’m old enough, and have seen enough, to know that if this postseason is less than triumphant it will only be so much of their story.
That’s the Lokiesque nature of one-and-done college basketball. Sometimes your team escapes New Mexico State in the Round of 64 by the skin of its teeth’s skin and goes on to earn the program’s first-ever Final Four berth. Sometimes someone else’s 71-percent free-throw shooting team has its best season in ages end because it goes 11-for-25 from the line at the worst possible time. These tournaments are the crapshootin’-est crapshoots that ever crapshot.
If that’s a bummer to consider for Auburn’s chances to hang another banner (or two, or three) this March, it’s equally liberating to consider as we watch them attempt to. The seminal text of this Tigers season has been Ryan Sterritt’s immortal “PEACOCK” missive at College and Mag, and perhaps acknowledging the inherent randomness and unpredictability of March Madness is insufficient peacocking.
But I’m viewing it the other way around: there’s no game** between now and the end of the season where Auburn can be too confident of victory, but there’s also no game between now and the end of the season where Auburn can’t be confident of victory. They’re the Auburn Tigers. They’re Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler, KD Johnson, Wendell Green Jr., Allen Flanigan, Zep Jasper, Dylan Cardwell, Devan Cambridge, Jaylin Williams, Chris Moore, Lior Berman, Stretch Akingbola, Preston Cook, Chase Maasdorp, Chandler Leopard, Carter Sobera and Ty Cressman. They are one of the finest college basketball teams in this country, they are possibly the finest men’s basketball team to ever play for Auburn University, and they are more than a fine enough basketball team to win the SEC and/or the NCAA Tournaments.
The realities of March mean we must follow that hoariest of cliches: we must take the remainder of this glorious season one game at a time. We don’t know how many of those games there will be. But we know these Auburn Tigers will show off their champion’s tailfeathers in all of them. And I know I can’t wait to enjoy them again for as long as I can.
War Damn Eagle.
*I kid about Scottie Pohlman because I love, and because I will never get over how someone that baby-faced could be that much of an assassin. The current team would take his rain of fire in half a heartbeat.
**Well, if Auburn earns a 1-seed, the 1-16 game would come awful close to making this “only one game.” But we all remember UMBC-Virginia. No point in tempting fate.