KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The question posed to the five Auburn basketball players sitting on the stage Saturday inside the Sprint Center was whether they had been recruited by the Kansas and North Carolina teams they just beat or the Kentucky team they were set to play the next day.
Horace Spencer, Malik Dunbar, Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Anfernee McLemore answered it in nearly identical ways.
“I wasn’t recruited by any of those schools."
“I wasn’t, either.”
“I wasn’t recruited at all.”
“I wasn’t recruited by any of those.”
None of this is news. Spencer, Dunbar and Brown are all seniors, and Harper and McLemore are both juniors. These are three- and four-year old slights.
But it is evidence of perhaps Auburn’s greatest strength, one that may be even more important than its speed or depth or 3-point shooting or ability to create havoc on defense — the giant, boulder-sized chip on the team’s collective shoulder.
The Tigers believed they could and should defeat bluebloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the three winningest programs in college basketball history — on their way to the first Final Four in school history. They also believed that no one outside of Lee County thought they had so much as a chance.
“None of us are huge, big-time names. We weren’t highly recruited. I was a three-star. Jared was a four-star. We don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans,” Brown said after Sunday’s overtime victory over the Wildcats in the Elite Eight. “So why wouldn’t you pick a team full of McDonald’s All Americans over three-stars?”
That underdog mentality has been woven into the fabric of a team that has won a program-record 30 games and a nation-leading 12 straight. Even when they’re not the underdog, players convince themselves that they are — Auburn was a two-point betting favorite over Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but Brown found a poll online where 58 percent of the voters picked the Jayhawks to win. He sent a group message out to the entire team.
The Tigers led by as many as 27 points before coasting to a 14-point victory.
“If you want to count us out, count us out,” Spencer said. “We know that, when we go back to Auburn, Toomer’s Corner is going to be all white and our fans are going to show us love and support. That’s all we need.”
The ever-present swath of toilet paper covering Toomer's Oaks like fresh snow, the hundreds of fans that waited at Montgomery Regional Airport and Auburn Arena to greet the Final Four-bound team as it arrived home from Kansas City late Sunday night — the Tigers saw this for themselves this season, even when not many others did.
The answer to the question, “When did that belief start?” is different depending on who you ask. Spencer said winning a national championship was the goal going into the season. Samir Doughty said he first sensed it was possible the first time the entire team got together in the gym over the summer, and that its confidence was never shaken even as the losses accumulated during the early part of conference play.
Auburn grinded through its first three games at the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tennessee — it survived Missouri 81-71 and South Carolina 73-64 before needing a late Harper 3 to put away Florida 65-62 — but when it got to Sunday’s final and blew out a top-five in Tennessee 84-64 in front of what was essentially a home crowd, assistant coach Steven Pearl thought to himself, “All right, this team’s got the juice to find a way to advance.”
“When we’re making shots, when we’re playing confident like that, when we’re guarding,” he said, “we can beat anybody.”
McLemore said he didn’t truly feel it until the Tigers defeated the Tar Heels in the Sweet 16 this past Friday. The win over Kansas was great, he said, but that team was missing two of its top three players. North Carolina was as hot and as talented as any team in the country, and Auburn led by double digits throughout the game’s final 12 minutes.
“They were such a great team,” McLemore said. “Once we got that win, it was why can’t we keep going and keep winning?”
To be completely honest, head coach Bruce Pearl said after Sunday’s win over Kentucky, he never set the Final Four as the benchmark for the Auburn program he took over from Tony Barbee in 2014. At that point, the Tigers hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003, hadn’t won a share of the SEC regular-season championship since 1999 and hadn’t won an SEC tournament championship since 1985.
The former Southern Indiana, Milwaukee and Tennessee head coach simply wanted Auburn to be relevant, competitive and not a drain on the SEC, a fact he talks about often.
His players knew that history, but they weren’t part of it. Pearl said they could have patted each other on the back for a job well done after winning a share of the SEC regular-season crown and making the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, which was objectively one of the two or three best seasons the program has ever had. Not one of the players who returned did.
"Last year, when we got down to seven scholarship players and we had a number of key injuries, we got destroyed by Clemson in the second round, and we just were absolutely unable to be competitive," Pearl said. "From that moment forward, our goal this year was unfinished business."
Auburn has a chance to finish that business this weekend in Minneapolis. The Tigers will take on Virginia in the Final Four on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium (5:09 p.m., CBS), and the winner of that game will face either Michigan State or Texas Tech in the national championship game Monday night.
As the fifth seed in their regional, the Tigers are the lowest seed remaining, as they were during the regional finals this past weekend. They’ll certainly be the underdog — the Cavaliers opened as a 5.5-point favorite Saturday and were given the best odds of any team to win the title. Not many will pick Auburn.
No one in the locker room will care.
“I’m OK with people picking everyone else over us,” Steven Pearl said. “Our guys get bulletin board material basically every day they turn the TV on, because they’re always picking against us. Which we love. All of our guys have chips on their shoulders. They were recruited that way. We recruit these guys because they all had something to prove. So, you know, keep picking against us. That’s fine. We’re just going to keep grinding it out and try to find ways to win.”