By Kyle Koso
When it comes to building a brand, college basketball doesn’t have a more skilled architect than Bruce Pearl.
Beginning with his run at Southern Indiana (topping 20 victories in each of his nine seasons), continuing with four high-caliber years at Milwaukee and then a stellar six-year hitch at Tennessee (145-61 overall), Pearl has a history of attracting solid players to his programs and generating noisy, enthusiastic support from students and the community.
Entering his third season at Auburn, much looks the same – season tickets are sold out, and the Tigers are on a hot streak in terms of recruiting classes, bringing in current freshman 5-star recruit Mustapha Heron and adding another for next year in 6-foot-11 center Austin Wiley. The only things missing are nationally notable win-loss records, with Auburn dropping 20 games in both of Pearl’s seasons.
That can change in 2016-17, if the Tigers solve two puzzles. First, with no regular rotation player taller than 6-8, the roster runs the risk of being overwhelmed under the rim. Secondly, changes in personnel since Pearl came aboard mean there’s not a lot of experience to fall back upon.
“We are successful in everything – academically, men’s and women’s sports, across the board, but we know we’re in the longest drought out of the NCAA Tournament in the SEC,” said Pearl, whose team was picked to finish 11th of 14 in the SEC preseason media poll. “My first year, we won three games in the SEC Tournament, and that hadn’t happened in 30 years. Last year, we put together wins over Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia – that hadn’t happened (since 1967-68). Don’t be fooled by the record – we’ve done things on the court. It tells you where we were.
“It does take talent to turn a program around, and I do feel we’re on the verge. We’ve put some good recruiting classes together – right now, this is the youngest team I’ve ever coached, as a head coach or assistant. I’m going to start three freshmen. We’ve got good depth, good athleticism, and I think we can really score.”
The brewing electricity around Auburn’s program certainly attracted Heron, who flashed his promise by scoring 26 points in the team’s exhibition game victory Nov. 4. The fact more than 8,000 fans showed up for the tune-up means Heron’s instincts look pretty good when it comes to isolating a fun place to play.
“What drew me there was the coaching staff. I know we didn’t win a lot of games last year, so it’s a rebuilding process,” said Heron, a 6-5 guard from Connecticut. “One thing that drew me was (the idea) of blazing my own trail. Other (top recruits) were going to big-name schools and looking at those traditions. I wanted to focus on here, with the other guys who came here, and start our own tradition. We’ve got younger guys, 5-star guys, and this just sounds right, blazing my own trail.
“I was excited for my first college game, even if it wasn’t against a Division I team. It was still in front of Auburn fans, and my first college experience on the floor. I tried to come out hot, basically, and set the tone for the rest of the season.”
Another key player who will see heavy minutes is senior guard T.J. Dunans, who got off to a terrific start last season but missed 15 games after injuring his left knee. He came back and finished strong, navigating through the hard, heavy days of rehab and physical therapy and reclaiming a major role on the squad.
He’s now in the position of helping acclimate the newer players on the team, a job that has to be done at full speed, given the pace Pearl wants to see.
“Their IQ for the game is very high, so while they may make a freshman mistake, they play like they are already sophomores or juniors. I don’t worry too much about them,” Dunans said. “We’re going to be playing very fast; we have to match up in transition if we take quick shots, because we will take some of those. We are going to get up and down the court, so we’ll need to limit turnovers.
“Our recruiting classes – every group (Pearl) brings in has a real fire to it. We’ve got guys who can play multiple positions, so we feel we can be really good this year. Just stay tuned – keep your eyes on us, and we’re going straight to the top.”
“Hopefully, it won’t be as tough as some people think it is. We’re a team that is going to grow as the year goes on,” Heron added. “Other teams, they are who they are right now. Our better days are ahead of us, and we’re definitely working toward those days and then maintaining them.”
Pearl admits his undersized team will need to be prepared for physical play, with Cancun Challenge opponents Texas Tech and either Purdue or Utah State able to flex some muscle and potentially make life difficult. But the skill level of players like Heron and the unique flavor of a basketball tournament in Mexico just provide more reason to be fired up about the trip south, and the rest of the schedule, for that matter.
“Mustafa is a great kid, a disciplined worker. He’s an easy teammate to root for. We’ve seen an enormous amount of growth from Mustafa in the short time he’s been with us. He did not come in and try to take over – he came in and tried to fit in and complement,” Pearl said. “But, because he’s such a productive player, he has begun to really carve himself out a very strong role on this team. He’s done it the right way – when one of your most talented players is also one of your hardest workers and highest character kids on the team, it bodes well.
“Coaching is as much a ministry as anything else – you get a chance to give these guys this kind of an experience, it’s wonderful. What attracted me as much as anything was the field of teams – great teams, great coaches – and when you’re the Auburn basketball coach, you make sure you don’t schedule a holiday tournament around the Iron Bowl. We’ll be back the Saturday after (the Auburn-Alabama football game).”