By Greg Ostendorf
SAN DIEGO – After Auburn clinched the SEC regular-season championship earlier this month, Bruce Pearl went around the locker room and had each player get up and reflect on how special this season was to be a part of. Patrick Keim spoke first followed by Horace Spencer and Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper.
When it came time for Anfernee McLemore to speak, he gingerly got up from his locker and hobbled to the center of the room on crutches.
McLemore didn’t play in that regular-season finale. He missed Auburn’s final four games down the stretch after he suffered a season-ending injury to his leg at South Carolina. But he was as much a part of this team’s success as anybody. In fact, he still currently leads the SEC with 73 blocks despite missing the final two weeks of the season.
“I just want to let you know I’m so proud of you guys,” McLemore told his teammates. “Even from Day 1, from preseason, they didn’t have us picked. They didn’t pick us to do anything like this. But I know we stuck together.”
McLemore didn’t have to speak. It was probably killing him that he couldn’t be out there on the court, helping his team. But he continued as he talked about adding the new players like Malik Dunbar, Davion Mitchell and Chuma Okeke. He talked about the trip to Italy in the summer and how Auburn went over as a team and returned as family.
“We’re just so close together,” he said. “We’re so bonded. These are my brothers. I love every single one of you guys. I’m just proud of you all. I’m proud of us.”
This group has accomplished something that hasn’t been done at Auburn in a long time. It was the first SEC regular-season championship since 1998-99. On Friday, the Tigers will play their first NCAA Tournament game since 2003. And if you’re looking for the reason behind this team’s success, look no further than McLemore’s speech.
It’s the chemistry. It’s selflessness. It’s becoming a family.
Prior to the season, not many thought Auburn would make the NCAA Tournament, let alone win a conference title. This was a team that showed positive signs the year before, finishing 18-14, but when two of its top players were deemed ineligible before the first game, it looked more likely that the Tigers would take a step backward, not forward.
“We feel like this year is going to be the year,” Brown said. “We’re very confident of that. We’re working every day in practice on and off the court just to try to get there. We’re doing things in the right direction and taking big steps to get there.”
“What’s it going to take for this team to play in the NCAA Tournament?,” asked Finebaum.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication,” Spencer said. “Everybody’s got to buy into the system, so everybody can gel together and come together as a family, a cohesive unit, as a team.”
Brown and Spencer weren’t the only ones confident in this Auburn team. It was a different locker room from the year before. It didn’t matter that the Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the league or that two players were ineligible.
“The team is more serious about each other, more together, more excited for each other’s success,” junior forward Desean Murray said. “I feel like maybe last year we weren’t all excited for each other’s success, but this year, I feel like we just have that chemistry. We click real well, and everybody’s excited for each other.
“It’s our chemistry with one another,” added Harper. “We play well together. All of us offer different things, and it just creates a great team.”
After an early loss to Temple in the Charleston Classic, Auburn won its next 14 games in a row. The Tigers finally lost at Alabama, but they bounced back to win five in a row and seven of their next eight games. At 23-3, it was the program’s best start since the 1998-99 season, and at one point, they climbed all the way to No. 8 in the AP poll.
However, adversity struck again with McLemore’s injury as Auburn lost one of its key members. Down two players already, the Tigers went from nine scholarship players to eight.
Life has been difficult without McLemore. Auburn lost four of its next six games, and the Tigers enter the NCAA Tournament having not won away from home since Feb. 10. It’s caused people to once again doubt this team and how far it can go in the tournament. Some don’t believe Auburn will escape the first weekend despite being the top seed (4) in its quadrant.
“That’s fine,” Dunbar said. “There are going to be haters regardless. It’s redemption time. We know what we have to do, and we know what we’re capable of. We’re just going to go out there and do our best to execute.”
On that trip to Italy before the season, it was 10 days where the players slept in the same hotel, ate together and just spent time around one another. Everything they did was as a team. It’s been that way this week in San Diego. The players arrived Tuesday and everything they’ve done – from the zoo to team meals to practice – they’ve done it together.
The hope is that the camaraderie carries over to the court, and that Auburn can find that same chemistry it had earlier in the season even with McLemore on the bench.
Unlike the players, Pearl has experienced the Big Dance before. Between stops at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee, Tennessee and now Auburn, he’s coached teams to the NCAA Tournament in 19 of his 23 years as a collegiate head coach. He knows the feeling of hearing your name called on Selection Sunday, and he knows how special it is to win in March.
But every significant moment is only special because of who you share it with.
“Regardless of the moments that you would say were the most precious moments of your life – winning and advancing in the NCAA Tournament, the birth of a child, whatever it is – it's because you did that with people that you care about,” Pearl said. “You did it with friends and family or teammates. That's what makes those moments so special.
“So when you advance in this tournament and it's special, you realize that the only way you got to advance is because your players or your coaches or others carried you there. You played your role. I've got a job to do. Players have a job to do.
“But without them, without each other, it's not possible.”
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: