AUBURN — JaTarvious Whitlow was at home watching the CBS broadcast like everyone else Sunday afternoon when he saw an all-too-familiar face pop up on his television screen:
Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn, sitting a few rows off the court in Kansas City, Mo., to see Bruce Pearl’s basketball Tigers take on Kentucky in the region finals.
“I'm saying to myself, 'Coach Malzahn, we just had a scrimmage, and you're sitting courtside at the game?'” Whitlow joked to reporters Monday night in Auburn. “I saw them put the camera on him early in the game. ‘Man,’ I told my homeboy, 'We just had a scrimmage. He got there so fast.'”
That’s the beauty of private air travel. But even though the players don’t have the same luxury, Malzahn’s football team has gotten caught up in the fervor surrounding the men’s basketball team’s historic run to the Final Four, a run that it will try to continue against Virginia on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
They have been watching all the games on TV. They'll come into practice the next day and say to each other, "You saw such and such do this?" or "Yeah, those boys turned up last night."
And any time Auburn fans have gotten the chance to flood out of dorms, homes, bars and restaurants to descend upon Toomer’s Corner and bathe it white with toilet paper — and there have been quite a few of those recently — there has been a contingent of football players among the crowd.
“Every time I get to go down there, I’m down there. You ain’t got to worry about me. You’re going to see me, believe me,” junior linebacker Chandler Wooten said. “We’re supporting them and watching every single game they play in. I’m definitely loving everything they’re doing right now.”
It has been an incredible run to take in, and nearly all of it has coincided with the football team’s spring practice schedule. The basketball Tigers finished their four-game run to the program’s first SEC tournament championship March 17, the day before the football team first took the field March 18.
Auburn’s resounding second-round rout of Kansas started hours after the football team’s fourth practice. Sunday’s historic victory Kentucky — which sent the program to the Final Four for the first time ever — took place 24 hours after the football team’s first scrimmage.
And players are not only reveling in that success; they’re learning from it, too. The Tigers lost the player they describe as their most valuable, forward Chuma Okeke, to a torn ACL during a round-of-16 win over North Carolina, and still, they continued to win.
“For the guys to take that next step, when they lose a player and how they play together — we can all learn from that,” Whitlow said. “We can all learn how to put the team on our backs, put the city on our backs and beat the doubters. Everybody has said we couldn't. We just showed that we can. We just beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky? Those three schools are supposed to be in the Final Four. I mean, come on. Those are three known teams. They're there every year. And we just smashed all three of them. Virginia, y'all next. Believe that. That's how we coming, all aggressive.”
Pearl has spoken often about how much he learns from and has taken from Malzahn’s football program since he has been here. Early on during the 2017-18 season, before the Tigers had found much success on the hardwood and while the football team was making its run through Georgia and Alabama to an SEC West title, Pearl told his players to try to emulate the energy, emotion and passion Malzahn's were displaying in the locker room.
Before this season, Pearl said he asked Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele how he built such a strong unit on the gridiron, and he told him, “pursue the ball relentlessly.” Do that, and it won’t matter if your star player (such as linebacker Deshaun Davis) is undersized. The undersized basketball Tigers have led the nation almost the entire season forcing turnovers on nearly 25 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
“They got relentless effort from us, and now they’re using it and it’s helping out well for them. Like pursuing to the ball on defense and just making plays on offense to be able to win,” Buck defensive end T.D. Moultry said. “It most definitely gives me motivation.”
So it seems Pearl has been able to return the favor to Malzahn some during his own team’s historic run.
“I’ve been here nine years and been blessed to be part of two national championship runs, and being there (Sunday), it feels the same way,” Malzahn said. “They’re doing something special. Just how fired up they have the whole Auburn family and the school — this whole school is on cloud nine with what they’re doing and the way they’re doing it."