Considering that Auburn hasn't so much as dipped a big toe in NCAA tournament waters since 1988, the sign outside the 4 Seasons Cleaners at the corner of Gay Street and Thach Avenue would seem to indicate that the proprietors have inhaled the fumes of a few too many dry-cleaning solvents. AUBURN BASKETBALL CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH, it reads, in a takeoff on the famous sign at Birmingham's Legion Field proclaiming that hallowed ground as the football capital of the South. Except for the small fact that Duke is also located below the Mason-Dixon Line, the sign, at least as it relates to the current state of college hoops, is not all that ridiculous. Yes, Auburn, a team led by the only basketball coach in the land who has raised ostriches, shared a stage with Roy Orbison and backed Etta James on tambourine; a team that starts an Opie Taylor look-alike at shooting guard; a team that hadn't quickened the pulse of a hoops fan since Charles Barkley departed for the NBA in 1984, will almost certainly be a No. 1 seed in the coming NCAA tournament and has a chance of winning the national title. "This is a Cinderella story if there's ever been a Cinderella story," says the aforementioned coach, Cliff Ellis.
The erstwhile ostrich farmer doesn't have his head in the sand when he says that. (For the record, Ellis says that ostriches stick their bills in the sand to rearrange their nesting eggs, not out of fear.) Even if one considers preseason rankings to be just so much birdcage lining, the Tigers' leapfrog from a position somewhere out of everyone's Top 25 to No. 2 in this week's AP poll is extraordinary. The wonderful thing about Auburn's dominance (a 25-1 record and 23.1-point average victory margin, second only to Duke's 25-5 at week's end) is that no one is able to explain exactly how it is happening. The Tigers came roaring out of the gate and simply started rolling over everyone. A 90-62 victory over Tennessee on Jan. 2 was the first indication that Auburn was for real. An 83-66 rout of Arkansas four days later confirmed it. The Tigers' lone loss going into Wednesday's game at Arkansas says as much about their season as anything: Despite the fact that at least three players, including floor general Doc Robinson, were weakened by the flu, Auburn fell to Kentucky at Rupp Arena by only 72-62. The Tigers immediately resumed their winning ways, including a 102-61 dismantling of Alabama during which they led by as many as 40 points in the first half. Ellis says he's through with raising what he calls "the flightless bird"—he sold the last of his eight ostriches three years ago—but he's coaching some high-flying birds now. "It seems this team is men playing boys," says wide-body reserve forward Adrian Chilliest, nicknamed, as you might expect, Big Chill.
There are several reasons Auburn slipped through the preseason cracks. Prognosticators underestimated the impact that juco transfer Chris Porter, who pleases crowds with rim-rattling dunks and teases them with his coiffures—Yo, CP: Afro or braids tonight?—would have on the Tigers' lineup. They didn't realize that Robinson is a point guard in the Andre Miller-Jason Terry class. Certainly they weren't wowed by Scott Pohl-man, the 6'1", 155-pound sophomore shooting guard who looks as if he should be carrying the team's projector and whom Ellis compares to the first son of Mayberry. "Whatever it was, we're here now," says Ellis. "You might call it luck or whatever for five or six games. But this is 26 games!"
Generally it's a team's coach who conducts the we-haven't-proved-anything-yet chorus. Not Ellis. After Auburn clinched at least a share of the SEC title—its first since 1960 and only its second in 67 years—with an 81-63 win over Vanderbilt on Feb. 17, there was Ellis, running over to salute the rabid student section, nicknamed the Cliff Dwellers, and get himself in the middle of a mad, net-snipping, let's-cancel-classes-tomorrow! celebration in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum. Bo Jackson, who says he went to only three basketball games in his four years at Auburn, had flown in from Chicago for the event. Oh, yeah, the governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, was there too.
It's easy to get caught up in the giddiness that's sweeping through the Loveliest Village of the Plain—a description from an Oliver Goldsmith poem, The Deserted Village, that gave the town of Auburn its name—even though certain aspects of Auburn's profile suggest a team that could pull an early sayonara in the NCAAs. The Tigers are young, with only one senior starter, pogo-stick defensive specialist Bryant Smith. Though they showed the moxie to roar back from a 19-point deficit with 10 minutes left to win 73-70 at LSU on Jan. 9, they've won so many games so easily that they might panic in a close game with some first-or second-round nobody. While Robinson provides a steady hand, his team likes to boogie, and many tournament games turn into minuets.
Still, Auburn has come very far very fast. Its calling cards are defensive intensity and offensive rebounding, both fueled by solid depth. It achieves the former with an interesting 1-3-1 zone press that features Porter at the front, waving his hands maniacally at the inbounds passer. The Tigers try to get a trap below the free throw line, but if they don't, rather than try to trap again, they beat feet back and set up in a ferocious man-to-man. "A lot of teams press just to get a steal and get beat when they don't," says Pohlman. "Our philosophy is to wear down the other team with pressure." The offensive rebounding is keyed by the athleticism of Porter (3.8 offensive boards a game through Sunday) and Smith (3.2). Smith is usually good for a weakside putback jam per game, but Porter is already in the SEC dunking hall of fame. During an 80-54 rout of LSU at Beard-Eaves-Memorial on Feb. 6, Porter was trailing on a fast break when Smith's jumper from the left baseline clanked off the rim and bounced toward the foul line. Porter leaped, caught the ball in his right hand, yanked it back over his right shoulder and threw it down with colossal force. "That's what they get for not boxing me out," he says.
Porter and Robinson, both juniors, have been so good that they each deserve consideration for SEC player of the year honors. Robinson's father, Randolph, was a standout shooting guard for Selma (Ala.) High. When his son was born a few months after Selma won the state championship in 1977, Randolph named him Julius for you-know-who; as soon as the son started playing basketball, he picked up the nickname Doc, and no one calls him anything else. The 6'2" Robinson is the perfect point guard for these Tigers. He's content to run the break and calm the offense until he sees that Auburn needs a spark. Then he might grab a defensive rebound, dribble suddenly into a higher gear and throw down a one-handed slam, as he did in the first half against Vanderbilt last week.
If Robinson is the glue, Porter—CP to the Cliff Dwellers, who love him—is the glitz. One play from that game with Vandy illustrates what he can do. Running into the paint on a fast break, Porter reached for a pass from Robinson, ill-advised in that it was made into heavy traffic. Porter caught it, took one power dribble, exploded to the basket with two Commodores hanging on his arm, banked in a layup and drew a foul that he turned into a three-point play. Now, the average player probably never would have caught the pass, would have been called for traveling if he had or been stripped of the ball if he avoided walking. He wouldn't have had the strength to get off an accurate shot in any case.
Porter was born and raised in Abbeville, Ala., a small town about 100 miles south of Auburn. He was such a Barkley fan that he committed early to the Tigers, but he fell one point short of a qualifying ACT score. "I'm man enough to admit that I cried when I saw that score," says Porter. And man enough to take his medicine and attend Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where he averaged 24.4 points and 11.8 rebounds last season. Despite entreaties from such schools as Arizona and Indiana, Porter stayed loyal to Auburn after finishing junior college, and now Ellis hopes he will hang around for his senior season. Porter insists he will resist the call of the NBA, and he seems to be a young man who knows his mind. After a couple of mediocre games in braids, he made a key decision: "I'm going to stay with the 'fro." Good choice, CP.
Pohlman, for his part, will stay with the mop top that has made him a hero to a student section at the Coliseum that specializes in Polhmania. The students in this section hold up cardboard cutouts of Pohlman's farm-boy visage, plaster their bodies with his jersey number (10) and hold up a pole with a sign that says SCOTTY'S CORNER. "I can't help myself," says Pohlman, who is from Roswell, Ga. "Sometimes I find myself looking up there." Pohlman thinks that too much is made of his size and grade-school looks, but in truth, few 19-year-olds at any college look less like a player, let alone a starter at a powerhouse.