PECK’S PICKS: END OF THE ROAD FOR AU HOOPS
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament was a bloodbath. My bracket looks like Iwo Jima. I’m not even upset though, because the basketball was so consistently thrilling. From upsets like UMBC over Virginia and Buffalo over Arizona to amazing finishes like Loyola-Chicago/Tennessee and Michigan/Houston, the first four days of March Madness reminded everyone why it is one of the most entertaining sporting events on the calendar.
Unfortunately, Auburn’s run came to an end earlier than fans would have liked, as Clemson beat Auburn (I’m sure getting tired of saying that) in commanding fashion, 84-53. The game featured Auburn’s worst performance of the season, as the good Tigers went nearly two hours without making a shot. That might not be true but I’m not looking it up. I’m treating the stats on that Auburn/Clemson debacle like they’re the Ark of the Covenant.
As disappointing as the end of the season turned out to be, it’s impossible to deny that this was a historic season for head coach Bruce Pearl and his team. Auburn was one of the country’s most moribund major conference basketball programs when Pearl arrived. Former AU athletic director Jay Jacobs famously suggested that Auburn should bulldoze its arena and grow some crops if Pearl couldn’t build a winner. Even before two of its best players were suspended for the entire season after an assistant coach told the FBI that he helped procure illegal benefits for them (ALLEGEDLY), Auburn was expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC – as usual. Instead, they finished with a 26-8 overall record and won the regular season SEC championship.
The season was extraordinary, despite Auburn fading down the stretch and losing five of its final eight. The most obvious reason for the season’s derailment was the gruesome injury to center Anfernee McLemore, an imposing presence around the rim who was most likely on his way to winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. Auburn’s frontcourt was already thin, and losing McLemore was simply too much for Auburn to overcome.
With the entire roster of contributors from 2017-2018 expected to return next season, there will be more anticipation for the 2018-2019 season than any year in recent memory. After the Clemson game, Pearl hypothesized that Auburn’s three-man backcourt started feeling pressure and stopped sharing the ball effectively after McLemore’s injury. If Pearl can get everyone on the same page again, Auburn competing for an SEC championship won’t surprise anyone next season.
– The injury to Auburn WR Eli Stove – also known as “Niceville High School’s Eli Stove” – will open even more playing time for the less-prominent backs and receivers on the roster. Stove was Auburn’s go-to guy for the jet sweeps and other receiver-centric run plays that Gus Malzahn loves to deploy, and finding a suitable replacement will become one of the priorities of the spring. WR Marquis McClain (a Northwest Florida guy, just like Stove) and RB Devin Barrett could be two of the most likely candidates.
– I had Arizona winning it all, but Buffalo played so well in its upset victory over the Wildcats that I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for the Bulls to pull it off and continue pouring it on.
– I know it’s boring to pick the reigning World Series champs to repeat, but the Houston Astros only got better in the offseason. Every impact bat on the Astros is still young, while adding Gerrit Cole to an already formidable rotation will make it even more difficult for the rest of baseball to catch up.
Until next time!