For more than 24 hours, students camped out around the arena, desperate for a chance to get in and see the action. The general public, for whom tickets are not distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, spent $300 each on standing-only tickets to get into the gym.
It’s a scene that would be familiar in Krzyzewskiville at Duke, where college basketball has always reigned supreme. But in Auburn? In the SEC? His first thought would be that the orange-clad crowd had gotten lost on their way to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
For the next few months at least, Auburn is a basketball school. And after the Tigers’ 80–71 victory over Kentucky in front of a packed house of just over 9,000, Auburn could be the No. 1 basketball school in the country.
Saturday’s clash with the SEC’s only traditional basketball school in Kentucky was about more than SEC supremacy or even a No. 1 ranking. It was the clearest example yet of what the SEC has become in the wood. hard. Basketball is no longer a distant afterthought. And with conference schools finally investing in college hoops and rabid fan bases embracing it, SEC basketball is here to stay.
“I know this happens in North Carolina, I know this happens in Kansas. This is happening in Auburn, Alabama,” said a jubilant Bruce Pearl on CBS after Saturday’s game. “We are a football school, but we are also a school of everything.”
Under John Calipari, Kentucky has been known for its NBA recruiting pipeline as much as its winning ways on the court. But right now, the Wildcats are no longer overwhelmingly more talented than the rest of the conference. It was the Tigers on Saturday who had the NBA’s top prospect on the floor in Jabari Smith, who could very well be the first overall pick in the June draft. Smith’s outfield partner, Walker Kessler, was a former five-star draft pick and one of the best transfers in the game last spring. Another Tiger in Allen Flanigan is also on the NBA draft boards, and the rest of the Tigers’ roster is packed with former four-star draft picks and top-tier transfers.
And it’s not just Auburn that’s been blasted. Alabama, which won the SEC last season, has assembled a recruiting machine that almost rivals that of its football program and won in Seattle against Gonzaga earlier this season. Will Wade has earned his share of headlines for his supposedly shady recruiting tactics, but he has built a consistent winner at LSU. Tennessee under Rick Barnes has become a recruiting powerhouse and a regular in the AP Top 25. And Arkansas, perhaps the second-best hoops program in the SEC behind Kentucky, made it to the Elite Eight in 2021 for the first time in 25 years.
SEC basketball is no longer just about Kentucky. And with the ACC currently having its worst season in recent history and legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams ending their careers, we are at the dawn of a new era of basketball in the Southeast: one in which the SEC dwarfs the ACC.
These SEC football powerhouses were already exerting their recruiting muscle on the field. Now you add in Auburn producing a likely No. 1 overall pick, crowds like we saw at Auburn Arena this weekend and the massive NIL opportunities that come from playing in these college towns? Additionally, Texas and Oklahoma are on track to join the league, with new coaches who took their previous schools to the Final Four. Games and environments like the ones we saw on Saturday are the new normal in this league.
In what was perhaps the biggest basketball game ever played in the city of Auburn, the Tigers met on the spot. They started off slow and entrenched themselves in an early double-digit deficit, but never showed any panic against the preeminent hoops program in the league. And while Kentucky was certainly hampered by TyTy Washington’s early loss to an ankle injury, Auburn eventually imposed its will on the game and looked worthy of being the No. 1 team in the polls on Monday.
The Tigers won the rebounding battle 27-26, a remarkable achievement against the best rebounding team (and the best rebounder in Oscar Tshiebwe) in college basketball. They found easy looks at the rim for Kessler, who led all scorers with 19 points. And they took advantage of Kentucky’s mistakes, namely fouls on several jump shooters in the act of shooting, to give the Tigers free points and infuriate an already combustible Auburn crowd. The party is just getting started in The Plains, and that party may not end until the Tigers are officially No. 1 in the country at noon Monday.
Kentucky is going nowhere. With Tshiebwe, a hopefully healthy Washington and the experience surrounding that star duo, the Wildcats have a legitimate shot at going to a Final Four. And Calipari has three five-star recruits signed in the class of 2022 and a fourth in Shaedon Sharpe who signed up early to join the Wildcats for the rest of this season. Big Blue Nation is back in the national conversation after a historically poor 2020-21 season, and seeing what Calipari has done with transfers like Tshiebwe and Kellan Grady should scare the rest of men’s college basketball.
But the days of the SEC focusing exclusively on Kentucky are long gone. Pearl, Wade, Barnes, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman have all made it abundantly clear. There is certainly no shortage of resources to build powerhouses at these football schools first, and days like Saturday prove that if you build it, the fans will come.
The SEC is not just a football conference. It is an “everything” conference. And the future of college basketball in the South runs through it.
More college basketball coverage:
• College Hoops Mailbag: Texas Troubles, Best in the Big Ten and more
• First men’s NCAA tournament field projected by SI
• The fight for the future of college sports is here
• Hardaway gives the first blow to the media in a diatribe full of expletives
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.