Opinion: Auburn didn’t have choice with Okeke injury, but it can choose how to respond

MINNEAPOLIS — Like most teams, Auburn has a routine. The Tigers eat at the same type of restaurant the night before games – Japanese steakhouse – do the same things in warmups, even sit in the same seats on the bus.

So as they traveled to the Final Four on Wednesday, something felt off. The seat normally taken by Chuma Okeke was empty.

“We felt like we were really missing somebody,” guard J’Von McCormick said.

There is never a good time to lose a player to a horrific injury, but it’s particularly brutal in the midst of the NCAA tournament, as Auburn did when Okeke tore his ACL in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against North Carolina. The fifth-seeded Tigers play top-seeded Virginia on Saturday night in the Final Four.

It isn’t simply a question of how you fill his role or where you account for his points, but also how you recover emotionally.

Some teams simply can’t. Cincinnati couldn’t, bowing out in the second round in 2000 after player of the year Kenyon Martin broke his leg during the conference tournament. Kansas State wasn’t the same in the postseason without Dean Wade.

But other teams somehow find inspiration in the devastation. Michigan State reached the Final Four in 2010 even after Kalin Lucas blew out his Achilles in the second round. Louisville won the 2013 national title in tribute to Kevin Ware, whose leg snapped during the Elite Eight game.

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And no team, until it’s in the moment, can know which way it will go.

“We took that as motivation that we were going to win for Chuma and do it for Chuma,” Anfernee McLemore said Thursday.

“We know he wants to be with us contributing,” McLemore added. “He would do anything to be with us, so we definitely have to play hard. We can’t take any plays off knowing that Chuma would do anything in his power if he could just be able to play in this game.

“It’s going to drive us to another level, it’s going to push us to another gear.”.

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Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he thinks it helped that Okeke’s injury happened during the Sweet 16. Instead of having several days to wallow, Auburn had no choice but to regroup because there were only about 36 hours before Sunday afternoon’s game against Kentucky.

The players were stunned and sad, of course. But they also were determined to make sure that everything Okeke did throughout the season, including his monster game against North Carolina – he had 20 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes — wouldn’t be for naught.

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“We don’t want to make it this far just to make it that far,” McLemore said. “We want to win games and bring the trophy home.”.

Okeke arrived at the arena early in the second half against Kentucky, and sat behind his teammates for the rest of the game. When the Tigers celebrated their first-ever trip to the Final Four, Okeke was with them on the floor.

Though he didn’t make the trip with the team – he had surgery to repair his torn ACL on Tuesday – he is not far from their minds. In the mural of players outside the Auburn locker room, Okeke is in the front row. He still has a locker in the locker room.

But Okeke is not hovering over his teammates like some specter, his absence a source of depression and gloom.

There is no way to replace someone who could easily be considered the MVP of this Auburn team that has won 12 in a row. The Tigers know that. So they have chosen to honor what he did while focusing on what they will gain.

“Does the idea of a little bit more Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy, does that sound good?” Pearl said. “More of those guys is a good thing. So let’s take advantage of more of those guys, what are the things they do.

“It’s all about trusting each other. It’s about relying on each other,” Pearl added. “They’re different than Chuma, but I think they’re ready to respond.”.

Virginia, with its molasses-slow tempo and lock-down defense, is sure to test Auburn. But the greatest test is from within Auburn’s own locker room, and the player who is no longer there.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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