Long-sleeping Auburn is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 15-0
Auburn athletic director David Housel recalls a Tigers basketball game in the early 1970s, during the unremarkable tenure of coach Bill Lynn, at which Housel noticed a woman sound asleep in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The sight may not have been so memorable to Housel had the woman not been Lynn's wife, Martha.
Martha Lynn stands as a symbol for Auburn basketball, which has been somniferous for the vast majority of its 93 seasons. The Tigers have won one SEC regular-season tide, and that was 39 years ago. They have earned just five NCAA tournament invitations, none of them since 1988. When Cliff Ellis became coach in '94, fewer than 1,000 fans showed up for his first home game. "I took over a team that had won just 11 games and had lost two guys to the NBA, so I knew I had a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies to do," Ellis says, "but I've always loved the challenge of building a program when it's down."
Ellis, 53, who had coached with middling success at South Alabama and Clemson, arrived preaching a five-year plan. Sure enough, this is his fifth season, and the Tigers were 15-0 through Sunday and ranked eighth. Last week Ellis proudly showed off a recent note from Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins that read, "Cliff...Auburn #15! What the hell is going on? You the man...."
The Tigers are a blue-collar team that leads the SEC in rebounding, steals and scoring defense, featuring ball hawks like junior point guard Doc Robinson and 7-foot junior shot blocker Mamadou N'diaye. The offense is fueled by forward Chris Porter, a 6'7", 218-pound transfer from Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., who may be Auburn's best recruit since Charles Barkley. Porter, who was producing a team-leading 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, grew up in Abbeville, Ala., idolizing Barkley, and while he isn't quite as round a mound as Sir Charles was in his college days, his ability to clear space in the lane for easy baskets is reminiscent of Barkley's. "Auburn hasn't had a lot of success since Barkley left [in 1984]," Porter says. "Since I was a little kid, I've dreamed of playing a part in making Auburn a winner again."
As the Tigers have crept up the rankings, they have encountered skeptics. Before Auburn's Jan. 2 game against Tennessee, Vols coach Jerry Green said of the Tigers' spotless record, "I think that has more to do with scheduling than Auburn being good." The Tigers thumped Tennessee 90-68 for their most lopsided win over the Vols in 71 years. Four days later Auburn defeated No. 19 Arkansas 83-66 for its first victory over a ranked team this season. "The Tigers are for real," Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson said after the game. "It's a long season, but from a talent standpoint there's no question that they're a top 10 team." Auburn survived another test last Saturday night by rallying from a 19-point deficit in the final 10:30 to defeat LSU 73-70. It was their first win in their last 11 games in Baton Rouge.
The football-crazed fans in Auburn are gradually being converted. At the University Barber Shop on College Street, barber Bubba Bowling insists talk of basketball is outnumbering discussions of football recruiting and hunting for the first January he can remember. The standing-room-only crowds for the games against Tennessee and Arkansas represented the Tigers' first back-to-back sellouts in 31 years. Joyous Auburn fans stormed the court after the latter victory, eager to celebrate after a miserable 3-8 football season during which coach Terry Bowden resigned.
On the misty morning after the Tigers' win over the Razorbacks, Auburn senior guard Bryant Smith was walking downtown for breakfast when he noticed that fans had littered the trees at Toomer's Corner with toilet paper, a customary football victory ritual that had scarcely ever been performed during basketball season. "I said to myself, It's about time," Smith says. "That's the moment I really started believing mat Auburn could be a basketball school."
Lady Vols (Cough) Rising
Sick of Being No. 2
Tennessee senior forward Chamique Holdsclaw had made five of her first six shots when she struggled to the bench five minutes into last Sunday's showdown at No. 1 Connecticut. "My chest is burning," she complained. Then Holdsclaw, the reigning national player of the year, made like George Bush in Japan and vomited a bellyful of mucus into a towel. Moments later Lady Vols sophomore guard Semeka Randall came to the sideline and, rising to the challenge, also hurled—right onto the floor in the northeast corner of Gampel Pavilion.