The dream ended for Auburn on Saturday night in Birmingham, and Alabama is moving on in the NCAA Tournament. To understand the vast differences between the two teams, the box score and stats don’t tell the whole story.
Not even close.
Alabama and Auburn compete at the highest levels of college basketball these days, and in that world it’s not just about the talent on the court. It’s also about the talent that got away.
Really, to fully grasp how everything went down at Legacy Arena this week, it requires an appreciation for Auburn coach Bruce Pearl’s major letdown way back in 2021. This entire season would have been different in the SEC, and in this NCAA Tournament, too, if Pearl had landed super-recruit Scoot Henderson instead of Henderson and his family choosing a new option available to high school players, a path straight to the pros through the NBA’s G-League.
RELATED: ‘Frustrating’ free-throw struggles sink Auburn
RELATED: Rewinding Auburn’s loss to Houston
RELATED: San Diego State coaches says he needs to study up
Pearl revisited Henderson’s choice in the news conference after Auburn’s 81-64 loss to Houston. How did the decision of Henderson reshape the SEC?
Pearl didn’t answer that question directly, but he did offer keen insight into the inner workings of modern day team building for major programs like Auburn and Alabama.
“That was pre-NIL,” Pearl said. “So is there a chance that with NIL Scoot Henderson comes to Auburn? Possibly.”
And along with Henderson, other elite players probably would have followed. Maybe even some of the players on Houston and even Alabama’s team.
“I finished second on a bunch of the guys in this tournament,” Pearl said on the day between Auburn’s first- and second-round games.
Pearl got the most out of a limited roster this season. It might not feel that way with Alabama clowning teams in the NCAA Tournament like the Harlem Globetrotters, but Auburn will remain an elite basketball destination after this season. Why? One reason is because Pearl is a great coach, but another is because Auburn has made a major commitment to helping grow that thing called NIL.
“NIL,” or name, image and likeness, represents a path for NIL collectives to match or exceed money from the G-League. Universities can’t pay players as employees, but NIL collectives associated with universities can pool the money to pay players for their NIL. It’s a shady workaround, but that’s the business of college basketball and football these days.
Under that backdrop, and behind the scenes, the money of the game is reshaping the sport of college basketball and this NCAA Tournament is being affected by it. How do you put together a championship contender of future NBA players? You pay them money through NIL collectives, and then convince them to play defense.
College athletics are changing, and the NCAA Tournament games in Birmingham and elsewhere served as the stages for the opening weekend of a new era. Now it’s on to Louisville for Alabama and the Kansas City regional for Houston. Guess where Duke and North Carolina will be? Back at home.
The ACC used to be the best and the baddest basketball conference around. Maryland joined the Big Ten long ago, Duke went out to Tennessee on Saturday and the only teams from the ACC that remain in the field are Miami and Pitt. Both play on Sunday.
North Carolina didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament, and then the Tar Heels refused to play in the NIT.
In Birmingham, the two best basketball players here took over their games on Saturday when the moments called for greatness. It doesn’t always happen that way in the NCAA Tournament, which banks — and makes huge bank — on the big guys cracking under pressure, but the No.1 seeds in Birmingham proved they were made of tougher stuff than the top-line teams elsewhere on the first weekend of March Madness. No.1 Purdue fell to 16-seed Fairleigh-Dickson on Friday and No.1 Kansas flamed out against No.8 Arkansas on Saturday.
Something tells me Fairleigh-Dickinson’s NIL stores probably don’t come close to matching the resources of an Arkansas team backed by Wal-Mart money. It wouldn’t surprise me if Alabama met Arkansas in the championship game of this tournament. The Hogs, like Alabama, are loaded with future pros.
Alabama has Brandon Miller, who is projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA, and he played great in the Crimson Tide’s easy 73-51 victory against eight-seed Maryland. Houston’s star was Marcus Sasser, and he delivered the goods despite playing with an injury in the Cougars’ mauling of Auburn.
In the end, it was about unmatched talent, and more than likely it will be that way until the Final Four in Houston. Alabama looks unbeatable with its length and its defense. Houston’s athleticism is equaled only by its furious effort. They started together in Birmingham, and perhaps they’ll end it all together, too.
It’s all about the players, though, and Birmingham’s return to the NCAA Tournament proved that in more ways than one. Either coaches land the blue-chip recruits needed for a deep tournament run, or they’re nine-seed Auburn. The Tigers didn’t lack anything for energy. Skill? Auburn could have used a little more.
In the end, Auburn missed 20 free throws and only made four field goals the entire second half. In the beginning, and I mean long before this season, Auburn missed out on one of the best players in the country when teams built like Houston and Alabama did not. Houston had Sasser, and he made five 3-pointers. Alabama had Miller, and he took over the game when the run of play demanded it.
Auburn, like Pearl said after his loss, will be out recruiting on Sunday, and this time the Tigers better not miss.
Joseph Goodman is the lead sports columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.