With SEC Tournament Title, Bruce Pearl Has Auburn All The Way Back

Posted by David Changas on March 17th, 2019

Sometimes things really do come full circle in sports, and Auburn’s thrashing of Tennessee in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game is evidence of that. In Bruce Pearl’s fifth season at Auburn, he has brought the Tigers program — the absolute dregs of the SEC when he took over five years ago — all the way back. Today’s win gave Auburn its first SEC Tournament title since 1985, and only its second in history. And in getting the program to this point, he has also completed the rehabilitation of a career that appeared dead on more than one occasion. There is certainly poetic justice in that he reached the pinnacle of his accomplishment at the Loveliest Village on the Plains against the school that was forced to fire him eight years ago.

Bruce Pearl was all smiles after beating his old team to claim the SEC Tournament Championship on Sunday (David Changas/Rush the Court)

In winning the SEC Tournament, Pearl was able to accomplish something he never did at Tennessee. Although he guided the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament in each of his six seasons in Knoxville — including the university’s only Elite Eight appearance in 2010 — he was never able to secure the SEC Tournament trophy, losing his only chance in 2009 when the Volunteers lost to Mississippi State. But now, Pearl can bask in the glow of an unexpected four-games-in-four-days title that came from the middle of the pack. And whatever happens in the NCAA Tournament – the consensus is that 26-9 Auburn will be a #4 seed – nothing will take this accomplishment away. “The championship means so much because it might have been the best the SEC has been in so many years. We feel very blessed to be where we are,” Pearl said after the game.

Pearl resurrected a moribund Tennessee program when he arrived in Knoxville in 2005. The transformation of Thompson-Boling Arena into one of the nation’s nicest arenas is largely a result of his doing, and the six consecutive NCAA appearances remains the longest streak in school history. But the challenge he faced at Auburn was an entirely different animal. In the Tigers’ four seasons under Tony Barbee prior to Pearl’s arrival, they won just 49 games. Worse, he inherited a fan base that was beyond apathetic — even for SEC standards. And after losing 20 games in each of Pearl’s first two seasons, it was clear that this turnaround was not like what he encountered at Tennessee. But three years later, he has a program for which “also ran” status would have been a generous descriptor at the top of the SEC mountain. Only a year and a half ago, an FBI investigation swirled around his program – and just this week, former assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to the scandal – and it was not clear whether Pearl would survive. He weathered that storm last season and led his club to a share of the SEC regular season championship, but a first-round SEC Tournament loss and a blowout at the hands of Clemson in the NCAA Tournament put a damper on that accomplishment. Now, after doing something that has not been done at the school in 34 years, he has proved that he has more than survived.

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NC State Hoping to Show Its Hot Start is the Real Deal Tonight

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 19th, 2018

Perhaps college basketball’s most under-appreciated and terrific start this season is happening very quietly in Raleigh. NC State, winner of nine of its first 10 games heading into this evening’s battle with Auburn — the sole loss came to Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — has done so in relative anonymity. Tonight, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to take center stage and announce their candidacy for legitimacy to the nation.

Kevin Keatts is Smiling With Good Reason (USA Today Images)

Only four other schools in Division I hoops have played easier schedules to date than Kevin Keatts’ team, so the raised eyebrow skepticism with which some observers view the Wolfpack’s gaudy offensive numbers (currently 12th nationally) is justified. That said, NC State is playing the same brand of uptempo basketball that earned a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament last season, and Keatts’ proven ability in building cohesion and teamwork is already apparent. Eight of the Wolfpack’s nine victories have come by at least 11 points, a key component of the new NET ratings that the NCAA Selection Committee relies upon during its analysis.

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What’s Trending: Send It In, Jerome!

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 29th, 2018

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

I did not expect to highlight a Campbell box score when the week began, but then the Camels went out and did this…

The Butler program experienced tremendous heartache when Andrew Smith passed away a couple years ago. His legacy, however, lives on, and Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com wrote a brilliant piece on Project 44, change borne out of the tragedy of Smith’s passing.

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SEC Stock Watch: Volume II

Posted by David Changas on January 25th, 2018

As we approach the halfway mark of SEC play, it’s time for this season’s second installment of Stock Watch.

Trending Up

It’s been an unusual season for Bruce Pearl, who has Auburn in first place in the SEC (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Auburn as Regular Season Champion. With Wednesday night’s win at Missouri, Auburn is now 6-1 in the SEC with three road wins and a favorable schedule ahead. The Tigers are without question the biggest surprise in a league with quite a few of them, and there is no reason to think that they’ll fall apart anytime soon.
  • An Eight-Bid League. For a conference that submitted only three of its 14 teams into the Big Dance just three years ago, the fact that so many of its members are still reasonably in the hunt for a bid in late January is remarkable. Right now, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama all appear to be safe bets to make the field, while Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina are in the running. Whether any of these 10 teams can do any damage once they get there remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that times around the SEC have changed.
  • Yante Maten. The Georgia senior has not disappointed in his final campaign. He leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 PPG), ranks second in rebounding (9.4 RPG), and is almost single-handedly keeping the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament conversation. If they can make a run to .500 or better in the second half of conference play, Maten might be looking at SEC Player of the Year honors.

Flat

  • Bruce Pearl. It might seem odd for Pearl to land here given the remarkable job he has done with a team that has surged to a great start without the services of two expected elite talents, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley. But it is the reason that those two aren’t playing that puts the fourth-year Auburn coach in this category. As long as the specter of the FBI investigation hangs over the program, no one on the Plains will get too comfortable regardless of how well things are going on the floor.

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Despite Adversity, Auburn is Emerging as a Legitimate SEC Contender

Posted by David Changas on January 5th, 2018

Auburn waltzed through its non-conference schedule to a very nice 12-1 record, the Tigers’ best start in more than a dozen years. But behind that gaudy mark was a collection of creampuffs and cupcakes that meant they really had not proven anything entering SEC play at Tennessee on Tuesday night. Against the nation’s 206th-best non-conference schedule, the Tigers played only three games against KenPom top-100 opponents – Temple (the sole loss), Middle Tennessee, and Murray State – and that group isn’t exactly a who’s who of college basketball powerhouses. So even though there was some optimism on the Plains as Auburn began the quest for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 15 years, it was understandably guarded. But after beating the Volunteers by 10 points in front of a near-capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier this week — a game in which they grabbed an amazing 47.8 percent of their own misses — things are looking brighter for Auburn basketball than they have in a very long time.

Auburn’s 11-game winning streak has Bruce Pearl’s team sitting pretty in the SEC. (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

In something of an ironic twist, Auburn’s performance in Knoxville was reminiscent of the type of efforts head coach Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee’s teams customarily gave during his six seasons at the school. The Tigers ultimately overcame deficits of 15 points in the first half and five points in the second half before outscoring the Volunteers by 15 down the stretch. Auburn got the win despite shooting only 40.5 percent from the floor and a 29.0 percent from three-point range by owning the glass on both ends, hitting free throws and forcing turnovers.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.07.17 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 7th, 2017

Now that the season is nearly a month old, it’s time to take stock of where the league stands. This is the debut of SEC Stock Watch for the 2017-18 season.

Trending Up

  • An Improved SEC. There was considerable discussion about SEC basketball being better this season, and so far, it has been. Improved coaching and recruiting has led to better depth across the league, and the number of quality wins in the non-conference season has correspondingly grown. Despite a few setbacks, all 14 SEC teams currently sit in the KenPom top 100, and Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi State have all been early surprises.

Tyler Davis has led the way for Texas A&M so far this season (San Antonio Express-News).

  • Texas A&M as a contender. Much was also made of the Aggies in the preseason, and despite Wednesday night’s loss to Arizona in the desert, Billy Kennedy‘s club has been even better than expected. Texas A&M’s opening-night blowout of West Virginia in Germany remains the biggest win for the league thus far. If the Aggies can get preseason all-conference forward Robert Williams going soon, look out.
  • Missouri without MPJ. Assuming Michael Porter, Jr. does not return to the Tigers this season, his career likely will go down as one of the shortest in the history of college basketball. The devastating loss of a player who many pundits considered the best freshman in the country is an indescribably difficult blow for first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, but the Tigers have righted the ship on their way to a 7-2 start. There is no reason to think Missouri can’t be pretty good even without the services of Porter.

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SEC Weekend Preview: Opening Night Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 10th, 2017

It has been a long time since there has been so much excitement surrounding the start of SEC basketball. With so many of the league’s football programs struggling and the promise of widespread improvement across the conference on the hardwood — not to mention the specter of an ongoing FBI investigation hanging over a few schools — everyone is ready to start playing. As we open the season at 13 of the SEC’s 14 schools tonight, let’s look ahead to this evening’s most intriguing match-ups:

  • Texas A&M vs. West Virginia – ESPN, 6:00 PM. This is the marquee game of opening night, as the #25 Aggies take on Bob Huggins’ #11 Mountaineers at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Texas A&M gets an early chance to show that last season’s downturn was a momentary blip on its long-term trajectory, but it will have to do so without potential lottery pick Robert Williams, who is serving a two-game suspension for a violation of university policy. Freshman point guard JJ Caldwell is also suspended for the team’s first five games after an offseason arrest charge that was later dropped. That leaves it up to junior forward Tyler Davis to lead the Aggies in what promises to be a very difficult match-up with a Big 12 heavyweight.

Alabama received the good news that Collin Sexton will return next week against Lipscomb (rolltide.com)

  • Memphis vs. Alabama, 6:30 PM. The Crimson Tide will also get an early test against a rebuilding Memphis team at the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. Although Alabama got news late Thursday that highly acclaimed freshman Collin Sexton will only sit out tonight’s game and can return on Tuesday against Lipscomb, Memphis is a dangerous team to play at less than full strength. Still, this is a major development for Avery Johnson as it appeared earlier in the week that Sexton, a consensus top-10 player in the class of 2017, may not ever suit up for the Tide.

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Morning Five: Opening Day 2017 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on November 10th, 2017

morning5

  1. In an off-season filled with too many negative stories to keep track of, one of the bright spots is the return of Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges. To most, his decision to return to school forgoing (or at least delaying) millions of dollars was irrational, but as Carvell Wallace notes Bridges does have his reasons to return for at least one more season. While we still can’t say that we agree with his decision it does provide a better rationalization than we have seen elsewhere and gives good insight into who Bridges is.
  2. On Tuesday we mentioned that Bruce Pearl‘s job might not be secure, but we had no idea that the next day news would come out that he was refusing to cooperate with Auburn and its investigation into the FBI allegations. If that is true and Pearl continues to refuse to cooperate with the administration we do not understand how he can stay on at the school. Pearl is a good coach, but not nearly good enough to compensate for a mediocre performance at the school with a show-cause in his recent past and his unwillingness to work with the school in a federal investigation.
  3. Compared to the other legal issues we have seen around college basketball lately the misdemeanor charges filed against Connecticut junior Jalen Adams seem pretty trivial. Adams, who averaged 14.4 points and 6.1 assists per game last season, has been charged with a misdemeanor for leaving the scene of an accident after he crashed his scooter into another scooter during an on-campus race. Unless he has had disciplinary issues in the past that we are not aware of we expect that Adams won’t face any significant punishment.
  4. When North Carolina defended its basketball program by saying that the student-athletes had not been granted special privileges because the fraudulent classes they had taken were available to all students we wondered when its academic accrediting body would come around questioning its academic standards. It looks like that day might be coming soon as The News & Observer (the paper that led the investigation into the scandal) reported that accrediting body is taking a deeper look into the school. We doubt that the school will face any major penalties, but it seems odd that the school defended its basketball program by throwing itself under the bus.
  5. The suspensions of Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson got more complex on Tuesday when Gary Parrish reported that Ron Bell (a former friend of Josh Pastner) was the individual who provided the players with the impermissible benefits. We are struggling to understand why Bell would turn on Pastner, a man he says saved his life when he was dealing with drug addiction, but it does appear that Bell has solid evidence of providing benefits to the two players and speaking extensively with Pastner on October 2, the day that the school announced the suspensions. The school has not given much in the way of a response to these allegations and it is unlikely that Pastner will face any long-term consequences from this (other than maybe his reputation within coaching circles), but we are almost certain that the people who will be affected by this the most are Okogie and Jackson.
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Morning Five: 11.07.17 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on November 7th, 2017

morning5

  1. We hate to open a M5 before the season begins by speculating about a coach’s future, but we do wonder how long of a leash Bruce Pearl has at Auburn. When Pearl came to Auburn following his run-in with the NCAA that resulted in a show-cause penalty, the general consensus was that he would quickly turn the Tigers into a contender. Unfortunately for Pearl and the Auburn administration,  that process has taken longer than anticipated and this year’s team was hit with a big setback when they announced that Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, two of their top players, will be held out indefinitely as they are part of an ongoing investigation that is believed to be related to Chuck Person and the FBI. That announcement was followed by an exhibition loss to Division II Barry University and the news that longtime athletic director Jay Jacobs will be stepping down at the end of the academic year. If Pearl doesn’t show some signs of progress and there are signs of the FBI investigation moving beyond Person, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a new athletic director move in another direction.
  2. The Tigers are far from the only team to be feeling the effects of the FBI investigation. In fact, in their own state, Alabama announced yesterday that it will be holding out Collin Sexton, one of the most hyped freshman in the country, while they investigate potential eligibility issues that also appear to be related to the FBI investigation. Sexton’s absence could be a massive blow to an Alabama team that appears to be on the verge of making a breakthrough this year. Without Sexton and his offensive firepower (MVP of the U-17 World Championships where he led the US in scoring and assists) those hopes of a NCAA Tournament appearance would be in serious jeopardy.
  3. Staying in the SEC, but avoiding the FBI (for now), Texas A&M  will be without the services of Robert Williams for the first two games of the regular season after he was suspended for a violation of school policy. Williams (11.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game as a freshman) is a potential lottery pick and his absence against West Virginia in the season-opening will make an upset even more unlikely. As as Williams comes back to the team focused, the Aggies should be one of the top teams in the SEC. Like the absence of Williams, we would not worry too much about Duke suspending freshman point guard Trevon Duval from its exhibition against Bowie State this Saturday for a violation of team rules. While we would normally be more worried about a freshman getting suspended so early, Duke has enough experience with Grayson Allen in the backcourt that they should be able to withstand any growing pains while Duval adjusts to college life.
  4. While not nearly on the level of the FBI investigation, Georgia Tech‘s announcement that it will be holding Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie out of games indefinitely for receiving impermissible benefits could have an enormous impact on their season. Jackson and Okogie reportedly received less than $525 and $750, respectively, in benefits from a booster. Based on precedent, in addition to repaying the person who provided the benefits, Jackson would be expected to miss 20% of the regular season (six games) and Okogie would be expected to miss 30% of the regular season (nine games), but as we all know this is up to the discretion of the NCAA and at this point we don’t know what that will mean.
  5. Many people downplay the importance of preseason polls, but at the very least they signal the imminent arrival of the college basketball season (and they are actually fairly accurate). This year’s preseason poll wasn’t particularly shocking as it is mostly based on projections and there tends to be quite a bit of groupthink with these things. The most interesting things to us are that four of the top five teams will be playing in the Champions Class, which usually has at least two or three top-5 teams, but based on our recollection it has never had all four in that category. The other is that the voters seem to be assuming that a lot of players will be able to maintain their eligibility despite the ongoing NCAA investigation.
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SEC Team Capsules: Bottom Tier (#14-#10)

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 4th, 2016

With Halloween still fresh on our minds, there is nothing scarier than the bottom tier of the SEC. There are tigers, tigers, even more tigers, and there is nothing more frightening than a grumpy Frank Martin or a Johnny Jones-led offense without the services of Ben Simmons. If none of that sends chills up your spine, just think about Missouri basketball. If you were lucky enough to get through Halloween night with some leftover candy, the days that follow usually involve filtering through your stash to devour the best of the rest. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find a full size candy bar or those Halloween Kit-Kats (which are the best, by the way) hiding near the bottom. But more often than not, you end up with a skeleton pencil or those disgusting brown globs of goo wrapped in black and orange wrappers. This post is less of the delicious Kit-Kats that disappeared within seconds of returning back home, and more of the box of raisins that sat in the old lady down the street’s pantry for a decade. Let’s unveil our series of team previews beginning with the bottom tier of the SEC (#14-#10).

AT A GLANCE

#14 Missouri Tigers

Kim Anderson Has a Lot of Work Still Ahead in Columbia (USA Today Images)

Kim Anderson Has a Lot of Work Still Ahead in Columbia (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 10-21 (3-15)
  • Key Returnee – Kevin Puryear, 11.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG
  • Key Newcomer – Willie Jackson, 6’6” freshman forward
  • Team Analysis: Wes Clark was dismissed; Namon Wright, Tramaine Isabell and Jakeenan Gant transferred; and Ryan Rosburg graduated, pretty much leaving the cupboard bare for Kim Anderson’s third year. Missouri’s defense was bad and its offense was even worse. There is nothing to suggest that this year will be any better in Columbia.
  • Burning Question: Can Missouri protect its home floor in non-conference games? Last season, the Tigers won seven of their eight non-conference games at Mizzou Arena (losing only to NC State). The home slate wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of college basketball powerhouses (with Wofford, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Arkansas State, Northern Illinois, Nebraska-Omaha, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Savannah State making the trip), but neither is the 2016-17 schedule. Missouri welcomes Alabama A&M, Northwestern State, North Carolina Central, Western Kentucky, Miami (OH), Arizona (well, they can’t all be cupcakes), Eastern Illinois, and Lipscomb to Columbia, meaning that if Anderson’s squad has any hopes of getting to double-figure wins this season it has to enter January without any embarrassing losses. Something about this team suggests that won’t happen.

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