Pearl catapults Auburn hoops to titles, unfamiliar heights
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Auburn basketball first got a new arena, then finally got a coach to fill it.
Eventually, wins, titles and NCAA Tournament berths came, too.
Now, Bruce Pearl and the Tigers — despite some off-court problems — are riding high with a rare two-year run of success on the court, including a Sweet 16 matchup with powerhouse North Carolina Friday night in Kansas City.
It’s a marked on-court transformation for a program that only ended a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought last season and once played in a cavernous, seldom-filled coliseum across the street from 9-year-old Auburn Arena. Now, Pearl’s team has won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and two NCAA games, including a dominant effort against traditional power Kansas.
“He created what Auburn needed: Something to get excited about and a hard ticket to buy,” said former Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who led the Tigers to five straight NCAA Tournaments in the 1980s. “It’s hard to find a ticket. This thing’s sold out for every game.
“And you can’t say it’s a football school now.”
That might be a premature proclamation, though there is no denying the excitement around the program.
But this is only the third time Auburn (28-9) has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and it’s the third trip to the Sweet 16. Smith’s 1985-86 team is the only one to advance past that point, making it to the Elite Eight.
The recent success under Pearl has overshadowed some off-court issues.
Former Auburn assistant coach, alum and NBA veteran Chuck Person pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to commit bribery in Manhattan federal court, sandwiched between the SEC Tournament run and the NCAA opener against New Mexico State.
The NCAA ruled Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy ineligible for all of last season as a result of the case.
Assistant Ira Bowman was placed on indefinite suspension before the league tournament amid allegations that he was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pearl, who was hired in the final months of a show cause for NCAA violations committed at Tennessee, arrived with the swagger of past successes with the Volunteers and at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After starting with the first two losing seasons at Auburn, he wondered if he still had it.
The doubt didn’t linger long.
The Tigers won a share of the SEC regular season title last season and followed that a year later with their first league tournament championship since 1985, peaking at the end after some ups and downs.
A team led by guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper and versatile forward Chuma Okeke has won 10 straight games and shattered the SEC single-season record with 421 3-pointers.
Pearl had promised championships at the long-struggling program.
He has delivered on that front.
“What does give me confidence is we’ve won championships every place we’ve been,” Pearl said Tuesday. “So why shouldn’t I be able to say, ‘This is why we came here and this is what we plan on doing.’ It’s not bragging or being boastful. We’ve won championships every place we’ve been.”
None of the off-court incidents have derailed Auburn’s two best seasons in years.
“Bruce has done a great job,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy, a very gregarious personality, loves basketball, loves to coach, loves to work with the kids. He’s a hundred miles an hour, a hundred minutes a day.”
Auburn has routinely filled the 9,121-seat arena and packed the student section.
First the arena, then Pearl, then wins.
“It’s incredible what it’s like in there,” Smith said. “That started a change in Auburn basketball right there, not Bruce Pearl. Then, all of a sudden Bruce Pearl comes onto the scene replacing Tony Barbee.
“And that solidified the deal that Auburn is not just an every-once-in-a-while school. He sold the community, he sold the students, he created a basketball image. And he got everybody excited.”
Smith said he has never seen an Auburn team play better than in the first half against Kansas, when the Tigers built a 51-25 lead.
Auburn held on to win 89-75 and wasn’t really threatened.
The result was a Sweet 16 berth, the first since Marquis Daniels was leading the way in 2003 under coach Cliff Ellis. Now, Daniels is a graduate assistant at his alma mater after playing in the NBA for a decade but said “it was hard to watch from a distance” as the program struggled.
He said Pearl “came in and made some dramatic, dramatic, huge steps in his first year and his second year and he just kept getting better.”
Ellis was fired following the next season after the Sweet 16 run, and Auburn struggled in between with Jeff Lebo and Barbee. Now at Coastal Carolina, Ellis said at Auburn you have to “beat the bushes” for recruits, often from out of the state, with the Tigers competing for players with Alabama and others — some of which, like Kentucky, are basketball first.
“In the state of Alabama, you have to understand that football is the king. It is,” Ellis said. “It’s not going to change, but there’s a special place for basketball.”
AP College Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report from Chapel Hill, North Carolina