With a decisive victory against the Kentucky Wildcats, the perennial kings of the SEC, the Auburn Tigers have likely made school history (not to jinx them or anything). At 18-1, this year’s squad is positioned to reach the No. 1 seed for the first time since the AP began ranking teams in the late 1940s. They’re sitting in the second spot right now, behind Gonzaga, despite receiving more first place votes than any other team (36 to Gonzaga’s 25).
The reason — all but two AP voters had the Tigers in their top four slots. All but seven had them in the top two. But one voter, Jesse Newell of the Kansas City Star, had them at No. 9, an outlying ranking which put the Tigers four points behind No. 1 Gonzaga. Newell told al.com that his voting philosophy places the “best” teams in front of the most “deserving” teams. He felt Auburn fell into the latter category.
Newell was the target of much outrage from diehard Auburn fans this week, as the voting information is publicly available online. They came this close to making history last week — but perhaps the delayed gratification will make the top spot that much sweeter.
After the 80-71 win Saturday, there should be no legitimate reason or excuse for them not to end up in that No. 1 slot this week. Their previous high was in 1999 at No. 2 in the AP Poll, when they won the SEC title, a feat they repeated under current head coach Bruce Pearl in 2018. Pearl’s Tigers reached the program’s first ever Final Four in 2019, and with the way things are headed this season, they may even end up as the No. 1 overall in the NCAA tournament this March.
The Tigers are undefeated in the SEC, and faced an enormous challenge today in No. 12-ranked Kentucky, who are known for dominating the conference, though Auburn has won six of the past 11 meetings between the schools. Undoubtedly the biggest game of Auburn’s regular season, the arena sold out and students were camping outside the night before to get good seats. They got some pizza delivered to them by the team while waiting in what passes as cold weather in Alabama.
After coming out of a 10-point hole in the first half, the Auburn Arena came alive for the Tigers’ 15th straight win this season after pulling away midway through the second. Even as Kentucky pulled within two scores several times in the last five minutes of the game, the Auburn squad never lost their composure and kept a solid lead, going 24-for-29 on free throws. The Tigers were led by Walker Kessler’s 19 points and K.D. Johnson’s 17. So unless some AP voter decides to purposefully ruin the Tigers’ fun again, we’ll see history made this week for Auburn basketball.