Auburn Now a Football AND Basketball School, With Chuma Okeke Playing a Big Part in That

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - Auburn University, from an athletics standpoint, is generally thought of as a football school. Some of the best players in college football history played for the Tigers, including Heisman winners Pat Sullivan, Bo Jackson, and Cam Newton, and they’ve claimed two national titles on the gridiron – most recently in 2010 with Newton at quarterback.

Not to at all diminish the football side, but the last few years it’s their basketball program that’s been shining brightest. So much so that they could make history in the coming days. Never have the Tigers ranked No. 1 on the hardwood in the AP Top 25 poll. Currently at 15-1, they could be sitting in the top spot when AP releases their latest rankings on Monday, especially after defending-champion Baylor, ranked No. 1 at the start of the week, lost their first game of the season to Texas Tech.

This string of basketball success for Auburn started in 2017, led by a young core coached by Bruce Pearl. Among them was freshman Chuma Okeke, now a forward with the Orlando Magic. That season, they went 26-8, won the SEC regular season title, and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. Okeke, who hails from Atlanta, which is a little under a two-hour drive away from Auburn’s campus, scored in double figures 15 times that season and recorded three double-doubles, including against rival Alabama on Feb. 21, 2018 when he posted season highs of 16 points and 10 rebounds. Also on that team was now Sacramento Kings rookie Davion Mitchell, who transferred to Baylor following that season.

It was the subsequent season, with Okeke as a sophomore, when the Tigers truly exploded onto the scene. From the jump, they looked like a team poised to make noise come tournament time. They ultimately won their conference tournament championship for the first time since 1985, and then for the first time ever reached the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Virginia in an instant classic at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“Going into my sophomore year from my freshman year, I saw what I needed to do. I saw what I needed to improve on,” Okeke said shortly after the Magic drafted him 16th overall in 2019. “Playing in the SEC, I feel like that’s one of the most physical conferences in college basketball right now, and my body wasn’t right my freshman year, so I just stayed at Auburn all summer…I just stayed in the weight room, just stayed in the gym. In those big games, my teammates gave me a lot of confidence. They had seen how much I was in the gym. They just gave me a lot of confidence – and my coaching staff, too.”

Many wonder how Auburn’s season would have ended if Okeke, who was having an outstanding NCAA tournament, didn’t tear his ACL in his left knee during the Tigers’ Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina. The injury occurred just past the midway point of the second half with the 6-foot-8 Okeke driving to the basket. As he attempted to rise for a layup following a pump fake, his knee buckled, causing him to collapse to the floor.

Fighting back tears during his postgame interview with sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl, Pearl said: “Chuma was the best player on the floor. He’s hurt. He’s hurt. But we’re going to rally. I’ll go hug on him.”

The win over the Tar Heels set up an SEC showdown with traditional power Kentucky in the Elite 8. ‘Do it for Chuma’ was the theme going into that game.

“We have a motto out now, and it’s ‘do it for Chuma,’ teammate Bryce Brown said. “That’s who we are going to play for. If he was out there, he would give it his all.”

“Chuma’s our M.V.P.,” fellow teammate Horace Spencer said. “He’s always been like that. We’ve got to do it for Chuma. We’ve got to do it for him.”

What ensued was arguably Auburn’s most exhilarating basketball victory in school history. Auburn trailed by five at halftime, which was when Okeke, despite not being able to walk, arrived at the arena in a wheelchair to cheer on his teammates.

That was the emotional lift the Tigers needed, as they stormed back to force overtime, ultimately eliminating the heavily favored Wildcats.

Their Final Four game against Virginia turned out to be just as adrenaline-charged. Again, the Tigers rallied – this time erasing a double-digit deficit with just over five minutes left. However, they were unable to hold off the Cavaliers, as Kyle Guy, now playing for the Miami Heat, was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 0.6 seconds left, drilling all three free throws, the last of which put Virginia in front.

Despite falling short, Auburn’s tournament run had a fairytale-ish narrative to it, in the way they handled adversity and accomplished things never done before in the history of the program.

“We’ve got incredible character, and heart, and belief,” Pearl said during his postgame press conference after the Virginia game. “These guys have overcome adversity all year long. They’ve been doubted all year long.”

Those two seasons with Okeke and the rest of that core set the table for Auburn’s current state. Okeke has stayed connected to the program and believes there’s more good times ahead.

“I feel like they are growing, slowly but surely,” he said. “They are coming in ranked every year now…They are starting to be like a basketball school, and a football school.”

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