No. 1 Auburn's recent struggles on the road against SEC competition finally caught up with it on Tuesday as the Tigers dropped an 80-76 overtime thriller to a red-hot Arkansas team. The upset ends Auburn's winning streak at 19 games and extends Arkansas' current streak to nine as the Razorbacks continue to rebound from an 0-3 start to league play.
Arkansas (19-5, 8-3 SEC) used a 7-0 run consisting entirely of free throws to build a six-point lead in overtime and held on from there despite a pair of late 3-pointers from Auburn freshman phenom Jabari Smith. As the final buzzer sounded, many from a record crowd of 20,327 at Bud Walton Arena filled the floor in celebration of the program's second-ever victory against a top-ranked opponent; the first win against a No. 1-ranked opponent came when Arkansas knocked off Michael Jordan's North Carolina squad in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, during the 1983-84 season.
In terms of NCAA Tournament implications, Tuesday's outcome elevates Gonzaga to the top overall seed and drops Auburn (22-2, 10-1 SEC) to the No. 2 overall seed in the projected NCAA Tournament bracket, according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm. On the Arkansas side, it will do nothing but help a Razorbacks squad that entered the night as a projected No. 8 seed.
JD Notae, who entered tied with Vanderbilt's Scotty Pippen as the SEC's leading scorer, led the Razorbacks with 28 points. Smith contributed 20 for the Tigers. In regulation, Arkansas' Jaylin Williams hit a layup with 23 seconds left to tie the game, and Auburn's Wendell Green Jr. missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds to bring on the extra period.
Auburn narrowly scraped out a 55-54 win at Missouri on Jan. 25 in its first game after reaching the top spot in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. Then, after double-digit victories against Oklahoma and Alabama, the Tigers needed more late-game heroics on Saturday to knock off lowly Georgia 74-72.
Coach Bruce Pearl has admitted in recent interviews that his team may be a bit fatigued amid the mayhem, and its inability to close out another close game may have been a reflection of that.
Here are a few takeaways from the thrilling upset on Tuesday night.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman left no doubt in his postgame interview with ESPN's Alyssa Lang that his team noticed the way Auburn hyped itself up during pregame warmups. With just under an hour to go before tip-off, the Tigers started dancing at mid-court. Fans who had already found their seats seemed to take exception to that as boos could be heard raining down on the scene.
"You know, they danced on our logo before the game," Musselman said. "We watched that. What a great win for this program. It's so awesome."
An Arkansas team riding an eight-game winning streak needed no extra motivation to take on the nation's No. 1 team. But the Tigers may have provided the Razorbacks with some anyway through their pregame actions.
Here come the Hogs
When Arkansas lost at Texas A&M on Jan. 8 and fell to 10-5 (0-3 SEC), the Razorbacks woke up the next morning at No. 93 in the NET ranking, keeping company with the likes of Navy at No. 92 and Missouri State at No. 94. For a program coming off an Elite Eight appearance that had been ranked No. 10 in the AP poll just over a month before, it looked like the bottom was falling out.
The Razorbacks have not lost since.
Tuesday's win was particularly important because it marked just their second Quad 1 victory. Arkansas played a light nonconference schedule and was always going to make up ground during league play to build a solid NCAA Tournament resume. Wins over LSU and West Virginia in recent weeks were nice, but even those victories have been somewhat de-legitimized due to the recent struggles of those teams.
Beating Auburn is different, though. The Tigers are a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and beating a team of that caliber adds some much-needed and long-awaited heft to the Razorbacks' resume.
Unless No. 2 Gonzaga loses against Pacific or Saint Mary's this week, Auburn might have to kiss its first-ever No. 1 ranking goodbye. The Zags are already No. 1 in the Coaches Poll and have been receiving a decent minority share of the first-place AP poll votes during Auburn's three-week stay at No. 1.
But Tuesday's result doesn't change the outlook or ceiling of this Tigers team. There were several easy fixes that haunted Auburn in the loss that can, and likely will, be corrected soon.
Auburn ranked third in the SEC in free throw shooting at 75.3% entering the game but made just 8 of 17 attempts against the Razorbacks. Also, with starting point guard Zep Jasper missing his second straight game due to illness, Auburn was without arguably its top perimeter defender and one of the primary facilitators of its offense.
Jasper averages only five points per game and isn't the flashiest player on a deep and talented roster. But he is a sure-handed guard who was obviously missed on Tuesday as the Tigers committed 19 turnovers compared to just 11 for Arkansas. The Razorbacks capitalized with a 24-10 edge in points off turnovers.
Auburn may relinquish No. 1 come Monday's new polls, but there was nothing about Tuesday's loss to suggest it will be incapable of claiming it back in the weeks ahead.