Auburn is set to play in their first ever Final Four, and this has been due to the magnificent turnaround of the program by Bruce Pearl, who is in his fifth season as head coach. Times are currently better than ever on the Plains, but a few years ago, there was a different feeling towards the basketball program.
The year is 2014. Auburn is coming off another losing season, in which they lost to lowly teams such as Northwestern State by 19 at home (yes, you read that correctly).
Their season ended in nondramatic fashion to 13-seed South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and fans were once again underwhelmed by the coaching job of Tony Barbee, Auburn’s coach at the time.
That year, the team was in the 200th and 300th ranks of most statistics, including field-goal percentage and opponent points per game.
Mere minutes after their SEC Tournament run ended abruptly, Barbee was fired and he finished with a record of 49-75, the lowest winning percentage of any Auburn coach with more than a two-season tenure.
Times were bleak as ever on campus, and something needed to be done to spark interest in the basketball program.
A week after Barbee’s firing, Auburn found a new coach, and one familiar to the SEC: Bruce Pearl.
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl (Courtesy of Auburn Athletics)
Despite coming in with a rocky reputation (Pearl was still under a show-cause penalty due to recruiting violations at Tennessee), he had tremendous coaching success. His Volunteer teams made the NCAA Tournament every year, and reached the Elite Eight in 2010.
In his introductory press conference, Pearl honestly admitted: “I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy.”
While his show-cause was near expiration, Pearl immediately went on the recruiting trail to find some talent to rebuild the program. His first major commitment was Danjel Purifoy, who was a 2015 ESPN top-100 recruit. Moments after Purifoy committed, Horace Spencer, another top-100 recruit, joined the Tigers. This group also included Bryce Brown, who was a three-star recruit.
Those three players laid the initial foundation for Auburn’s future success, and it would continue to grow with recruits such as: Jared Harper (2016 four-star), Anfernee McLemore (2016 four-star) Austin Wiley (2016 five-star), and Chuma Okeke (2017 five-star).
The first two seasons under Pearl were reminiscent of Barbee’s tenure, as the Tigers finished under .500, but there was a sense of optimism that Pearl could develop talent at Auburn. After finishing 18-14 during the 2016-2017 season, a new horizon was on the dawn, and it completely came out of nowhere.
Auburn became the surprise team of the SEC in 2017-2018, finishing 26-8 and becoming Co-SEC Regular Season Champions with Tennessee. This was their best record since 1999, and it earned the Tigers a trip to the NCAA tournament, a place that seemed foreign to fans.
Despite the loss to Clemson in the Round of 32, there was a growing sense that Auburn basketball was finally heading in the right direction.
Along the way, the Tigers had an All-SEC caliber backcourt in Harper and Brown, along with a first-team defender in McLemore. This trio was committed to coming back next season in which the team embraced the motto of “Unfinished Business.”
The 2018-2019 season started off as a rollercoaster, as the Tigers were at one point 18-9 overall, including 7-7 in SEC play after a blowout loss against Kentucky.
That day, Pearl said that his team was “not competitive” and “physically overwhelmed.” Once again, something needed to change for this team.
Ever since that Feb 23. game against the Wildcats, the Tigers are 12-0, and in that stretch includes: a statement SEC Tournament Championship win over Tennessee and a narrow first round win over New Mexico State in the NCAA Tournament.
But wait there’s more…
The year of “Unfinished Business” has continued throughout the tournament, as Auburn knocked off Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky (AKA the three winningest programs in college basketball history) to reach the Final Four.
While the ACL injury of Chuma Okeke set the team back, they relied on each other to pick up the slack and forge on to the biggest stage in college basketball.
With the backing of AU Nation, a song (“We’ve Got Jared”) that’s becoming a fan favorite, and a hashtag (#DoItForChuma) on social media, these Tigers are still on the prowl and looking to bring home a national championship to the Plains.
If you told someone that Auburn was going to be in this position five years ago, there would’ve been loud chuckles and eye rolling.
Fast forward to now, and Auburn’s basketball program has experienced a full-blown resurgence.
Pearl is 100-71 overall at Auburn, and his past two season win totals (26 and 30) exceed the total wins that Barbee had in his whole tenure (49).
Basketball was an afterthought on campus under Barbee, but Pearl has created a winning culture that results in sellouts and waiting in line for hours just to get into Auburn Arena.
As Final Four time approaches, it’s safe to say Auburn is no longer living in a Barbee world, and that’s in due part to the “trust the process” attitude by Pearl.