Even though the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama will forever be associated with football, the annual hoops showdowns between the two programs may not be an afterthought much longer.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide both landed five-star recruits in the last 48 hours, further raising hopes that both may emerge as contenders in the SEC before too long.
On Sunday, Auburn received a commitment from Waterbury, Conn. resident Mustapha Heron, a big, strong, physical 6-foot-5 wing ranked Rivals.com’s No. 19 prospect in the Class of 2016. On Monday, Alabama answered back with a pledge from Texas native Terrance Ferguson, an elite 6-foot-6 shooting guard rated Rivals.com’s No. 11 prospect in the class of 2016.
The recruiting coups further validate the investments Auburn and Alabama made on splashy coaching hires the past two springs.
Auburn hired Bruce Pearl before his three-year NCAA penalty had even ended last year, gambling that he’d be able to inject life into a long-dormant basketball program the way he had at Tennessee a few years earlier. The Tigers haven’t finished with a winning record since 2009, haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003 and haven’t produced an NBA draft pick since 2001, a pretty remarkable stretch of futility considering how mediocre the SEC has been recently.
By any measure, Pearl’s first 18 months at Auburn have been a success.
He energized Auburn’s fan base so quickly that the Tigers sold out every game of his debut season last year despite lacking the talent to finish higher than second-to-last in the SEC. He began to replenish Auburn’s roster by landing a Top 25 2015 recruiting class highlighted by Rivals 150 prospects Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer. And he is well on his way to another strong class with Heron joining athletic forward Anfernee McLemore and small but promising point guard Jared Harper.
Alabama couldn’t sit idly and watch Auburn’s basketball program rise in stature, which is a big reason the Crimson Tide fired Anthony Grant after an 18-win season this spring and went hunting for a high-profile replacement. They swung and missed trying to lure Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall with gobs of money, but they landed a heck of a “plan B” option in former Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson.
Though Johnson managed to retain Alabama Mr. Basketball Dazon Ingram and entice his son to transfer from Texas A&M, the 2016 recruiting class is probably the first real barometer for how he’s faring in Tuscaloosa. Losing Heron to Auburn surely stung, but bouncing back by landing Ferguson 24 hours later no doubt eased that blow. Johnson used his Texas ties to gain Ferguson’s trust and persuade him to take a chance on the Crimson Tide rather than going to a more established program like Kansas, Baylor, North Carolina or Louisville.
“I want to start my own legacy and I don’t want to follow in anybody else’s footsteps. For that, Alabama is the place to be.”
It couldn’t have been easy for Heron and Ferguson to choose to try to build at Auburn and Alabama rather than picking a perennial national title contender. Ferguson hinted at that in a Twitter exchange Sunday night with his mother.
Alabama needed Ferguson too, just like Auburn needed Heron. With those two huge commitments, two schools known for football are on their way to becoming relevant again in hoops too.
Video of Terrance Ferguson via Rivals.com:
Video of Mustapha Heron via Rivals.com:
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