It was a matter of if, not when, Auburn men’s basketball lost another game. As its football team, the biggest draw of the athletic department that overshadows every other sport combined, goes through unsettling offseason turbulence, the fightin’ Bruce Pearls are putting together the school’s best regular season, starting the year at No. 22 in the polls before the Tigers’ current run atop the AP Poll. AU still hasn’t lost a game in regulation this season. Both losses needed overtime, including Tuesday’s 80-76 loss to hot-and-cold Arkansas, currently amid an inferno of winning in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks’ takedown of college basketball’s No. 1 was their ninth straight victory, a run that took Arkansas from the bubble to squarely in the tournament field. Essentially, a string of equal losses would be what it’d take for the Muss Bus not to make it into The Big Dance. The Hogs are well on their way to their third-straight 20-win season, representing Eric Musselman’s entire tenure at the helm, after winning at least 24 games a season for the four previous years at Nevada.
About a month after shoulder surgery, Musselman was among the masses that stormed the Bud Walton Arena court, celebrating Arkansas’ historic victory in front of the largest home crowd in the venue’s history, shirtless, save a sling to protect said shoulder. Did he look like a moron? Yes. Should he have any shame? No, he should feel that amount of joy after how he’s raised the profile of Arkansas basketball this soon into his stay in Fayetteville.
It was Thanksgiving Eve the last time Auburn lost, a double-overtime defeat during The Battle for Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas to UConn. That was 11 weeks ago and 19 wins in the rear-view mirror. The Omicron wave of COVID-19 in America hadn’t truly started the last time Auburn lost. Bruce Pearl hadn’t signed his massive extension. The Washington Football Team was still an official team name. It’s a streak Auburn can’t replicate this season, as at a maximum, it’ll play 17 more games — six left in the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference slate, four maximum (likely three) in the SEC Tournament and six win-or-go-home matchups in the NCAA Tournament.
Since then, Auburn has won four games by four points or less and three more by exactly nine points. That means a dozen victories during that streak came of the double-digit variety. The Tigers nearly lost on the road to abysmal Georgia and on both trips to the state of Missouri in recent weeks, besting Saint Louis by four and surviving a defense-first battle with Mizzou by a single point. And that streak all came to an end in Northwest Arkansas.
The last time the Razorbacks took down the country’s top team was 38 years ago, when they handed a Michael Jordan-led North Carolina team its first loss of the season after 21 straight wins, the Tar Heels’ only regular-season loss. That game didn’t even take place in Fayetteville, it was in Pine Bluff, a town you’ve never heard of, and Dean Smith lost a game at the town’s convention center.
Arkansas finished the overtime with an NBA Street-style dunk that didn’t count from Davonte Davis, before the lights flickered and a court-storming occurred. Before the Razorbacks’ ninth-straight win, it had lost five of six. They’re 19-5 on the year after starting 2021-22 with nine straight wins. The up-and-down trend has seeped into every year Musselman has been with the Hogs. Last year, it led to getting hot at the right time and a trip to the Elite Eight. This year’s squad is much different personnel-wise, but looks to have the same high-end quality.
As expected, the SEC hit Arkansas with a $250,000 fine for the court-storming, its third offense under the league’s policy, chump change for a high-level college athletic department, and encouraged by Razorbacks athletic director, who tweeted out two photos of his department’s last two violations of the policy. His last two hires of head coaches in the revenue sports have been home runs so far. So again, he doesn’t care how it looks. Last night’s win, and September’s gridiron victory over Texas, will easily make up for the $350,000 paid to the conference for the combined “offenses.”
Last night’s game is another sign of how unpredictable March Madness could be on the men’s side, the first NCAA Tournament without fan restrictions in three years. It’ll be a much better experience for everyone involved with no bubble restrictions in place and the usual number of host sites. Auburn’s standing won’t be damaged much with the loss. It should still be the top team in Bracketology until it suffers another defeat. Arkansas’ profile will climb in a deceivingly deep SEC. Enjoy the ride, folks, Selection Sunday is only a month away.