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Charlie Riedel, AP
Auburn players celebrate with injured teammate Chuma Okeke, left, after the Midwest Regional final game against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. Auburn won 77-71 in overtime.

SALT LAKE CITY — There are no upset-minded Butlers, Loyolas, Providences or George Masons in this year’s Final Four, but on the other hand, none of basketball’s blue bloods are there, either.

It’s far from a glamour show, but it’s not dumpster diving.

This weekend’s gathering has something not every Final Four can boast: reasons to both hate and love college basketball. That’s because one team fills the entire bill. Auburn is everything good and bad about March Madness. If you want passion and heart, the Tigers have plenty. They beat Kentucky last Sunday with their leading rebounder, Chuma Okeke, watching from a wheelchair. The Tigers said a disrespectful banner by a Kentucky fan, mocking Okeke’s ACL injury, motivated them.

After Auburn claimed its first Final Four berth in school history, alumnus Charles Barkley wept on-air. It’s hard to fake emotion like that. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is a meme for the ages. Check out the YouTube video of him grimacing and shaking his head as he struggles to avoid a technical — or worse. Then look at his past episodes. His facial contortions put Jim Carrey to shame.

Upon being introduced for his postgame press conference after Sunday’s win, Pearl began by saying, “Could I ask one favor? Could you say the very first part of what you said when you introduced us? Do you remember what it was?”

Moderator: “The Auburn Tigers, going to the Final Four, are with us.”

Pearl: “Thank you, sir.”

He just wanted to revel in what Auburn fans and players had coveted for decades. Compared to Bobby Knight’s profane rant at a moderator during the 1995 NCAA Tournament, Pearl’s request was sweet and humble.

There are no actual Cinderella teams in this year’s field; all compete with the largest of the large during the regular season. But Auburn’s list of former players starts and ends with Barkley and Chuck Person. Hey, it’s a football school. That doesn’t mean nobody besides football stars ever came out of Auburn. For example, Jimmy Buffett — the old pirate himself — is still looking back at 40. Lionel Richie sailed on after leaving Auburn to become an R&B staple.

This year’s Tigers have sailed on, too. They eliminated the winningest programs in college basketball history in the last two weeks: Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. If Duke had done its part, Auburn might have played the fourth-winningest team in the championship game.

For that, the Tigers deserve mad respect.

Pearl deserves a place in the honesty hall of fame.

“For me,” he told Alabama media two years ago, when Auburn declined a CBI invitation, “I have too much respect for the teams that went to the postseason to call this a postseason team. We had our chances and didn’t get there.”

But Pearl also has a history as checkered as a racetrack flag. He was fired at Tennessee and banned three years for NCAA violations, including lying to investigators. Person, who had become Pearl’s assistant at Auburn, was fired for alleged involvement in the college corruption scandal. In March, another assistant coach, Ira Bowman, was suspended amid bribery allegations related to a previous coaching job.

Throughout, Pearl has remained unbowed. Auburn hired him even before his suspension expired. That’s not stupidity or naivety on anyone’s part, it’s that Pearl’s personality could charm a saltwater croc. Wrote USA Today columnist Nancy Armour: “Somehow, he’s managed to turn sleaze into an attribute.”

He’s also managed to turn Auburn into a strong basketball school.

1 comment on this story

With financial excess mounting at college programs, and NCAA sanctions everywhere, there’s a temptation to write off the Final Four as a mess. Some say there’s too much corruption for March Madness to be appreciated. Others say it’s good to enjoy the spirit of the games regardless.

Michigan State vs. Texas Tech and Virginia vs. Auburn aren’t the gigantic draws that Kentucky, Duke, Kansas or North Carolina would be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Whether you’re cheering for college basketball’s downfall or its redemption, this year’s Auburn Tigers are an argument for either. Just being there is a stand-alone story.