By way of quick introduction, without boring you too much, I’m a former college player and HS basketball coach (and continued to work camps and clinics as an instructor for several years after I got out of coaching). These days I’m an academic, and an unreformed, unrepentant basketball geek. As for my loyalties, as a coach and fan, I was, and always will be, a “Carolina Guy” – a disciple of the late great Dean Smith. In fact, the last lecture I ever gave at a coaching clinic was on Dean’s greatest invention, the Secondary Break.
That being said, one of my degrees is from Auburn, so I have an obvious interest in their success as well. With the Auburn-Georgia game approaching, Monkdawg asked me to relate a few tidbits about Bruce Pearl’s Tigers. While I regularly do game analysis and write-ups on UNC basketball, ironically this is a first. I have yet write down my thoughts on Auburn hoops. I typically don’t pull any punches, so I won’t do so here.
As I’m sure the readers of this blog can relate, it can be awfully hard to be a basketball fan in the SEC (at least anywhere not named Kentucky). I hear that all the time from Georgia fans, and, trust me, Auburn fans can relate. After some decent success under Sonny Smith and then Cliff Ellis, AU saw more than its share of lean years, and much of that can be traced to the administration. Long story short, Cliff was a good (and underrated) coach, but was known to be a bit loose with NCAA rules. Following Ellis’s probation and firing, the PTB at Auburn proceeded to crack down hard. (ed. note – probably not unlike what happened at UGA after the Jan Kemp fiasco)
It may not fit the narrative on this side of the border, but Auburn’s Compliance Staff are notorious for being royal pains in the rear. (ed. note – UGA fans can again relate, given their difficulties with a certain compliance officer in Athens.) Jeff Lebo – who was more “Xs and Os guy” than recruiter anyway – was totally hamstrung and basically forbidden to interact with key in-state AAU honchos, and the hiring of Tony Barbee was a damned disaster from the get-go (don’t get me started…). He didn’t have Calipari’s recruiting carte blanche down on the Plains, plus he’s a flaming A-hole many kids just didn’t want to play for. Amazingly, Barbee is supposedly known now as Calipari’s Xs and Os guy at UK, but I hafta tell ya – watching Auburn games under him was almost physically painful for this ol’ coach. (ed. note – Can you say Ron Jirsa, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Mark Fox?)
Enter Bruce Pearl. Now, we all know the story. Successful wherever he’s been, mega-promoter, yada, yada, yada, but … he’s had a reputation of playing fast and loose with the rules. Yeah, he got busted for something stupid at UT, but that “picnic” wasn’t his first rodeo. That’s just what got him caught. But a few years removed, here was Auburn floundering in a basketball sinkhole with a gorgeous new arena, but no product to put in it. Suddenly here was Pearl, coming off his “show-cause” and itching to coach again … and now sporting his ESPN cache to boot and hoping somebody above DII will take a chance on him. Swipe right, baby! Bingo. A match made in heaven – a moribund program and a coach seeking a second chance.
But like I said, I’m not pulling any punches – and I’ve already pissed off some Auburn folks with this – here’s my assessment of Bruce Pearl. On one hand, if we’re just talking Xs and Os, strategy, system, playing with discipline, etc? Bruce is a B-/C+ basketball coach. Would I ever want him coaching my beloved Tar Heels? Not just no, but HELL no!
However, do I want him coaching my beloved Auburn Tigers? Not just yes, but HELL yes! Bottom line is that despite his deficiencies elsewhere, Bruce is an A recruiter and an A+ promoter. He attracts talent and generates excitement. Just like he did at UT, he has become a celebrity at Auburn. After home games, he has his players out in the lobby of the Arena shaking hands and kissing babies. They put on cook-outs for the minor sports teams and show up at their games. Bruce hobnobs and glad hands with Gus Malzahn and vice versa. In other words, Bruce Pearl, just as he was at Tennessee, is the perfect basketball coach for a football school. Thus, while he is far from my ideal just as a basketball coach, I readily said from the outset that, as long as he can keep his nose clean, Bruce is a perfect fit for a hungry program, as another round of sold-out season tickets would seem to indicate.
So how is he doing? Well, it hasn’t been easy on the court. He inherited spotty talent with little size and had to try to plug and play with some JUCO kids and transfers – a group that, while talented, had some malcontents and loose cannons among them. Ultimately, the key will be the players he recruits. And recruit he has! In fact, if you look at Auburn’s current roster, he has assembled probably the second greatest amount of pure basketball talent in the league. Granted, 5 star big man Austin Wiley is a double legacy, but he is bringing in players Auburn couldn’t have even sniffed previously.
The problem now is that it is young talent. Amazingly, Auburn’s top 4 scorers pretty much all season have been freshmen (what is this, UK?). Preceding Wiley (who was a January enrollee) in the freshman class was AU’s first ever 5 star recruit, Swingman Mustapha Heron, a southpaw baby-beast who is the team’s leading scorer, 6’7 Forward (with an NBA body) Danjel Purifoy, and diminutive-but-quick PG from Georgia (and Peach Jam MVP) Jared Harper.
And more are on the way. For the ’17 class Bruce raided Georgia for dynamic PG Davion Mitchell, and for the UGA fans, if you aren’t already angry about losing out on Chuma Okeke (ed. note – We are!) … trust me, you will be. Plus, he already has 5 star Top-10 PF EJ Montgomery in the fold for ’18. All I can say is WOW. And impressively, thus far at least, Pearl seems to be doing it within the rules. I can tell you that Bruce has already butted heads with the AU Compliance Staff, so they’re keeping him on a tight leash, especially where it involves some of the sketchier characters in AAU circles. Hopefully that will continue.
However, at present, Auburn finds itself maddeningly inconsistent, blowing second-half leads and dropping games they frankly shouldn’t. Sure, a lot of that is youth, and AU has fought the injury bug, but, honestly, some of it is coaching. Fundamental flaws, such as poor shot selection and ball security, as well as brain-dead fouls, keep rearing their ugly heads. So, this young bunch comes to Athens fighting to finish strong enough for a post-season bid — — likely NIT — — but hey, that is also something Auburn basketball hasn’t sniffed in a while.
Bottom line is that an Auburn fan can take heart that the future may indeed be bright. Even watching mistakes that drives me absolutely crazy as a coach, I, too, can see that rainbow as well. Because if you think about it, if you have a B-/C+ coach, who also happens to be an A/A+ recruiter and promoter, well, that averages out to about a B+… and that puts you into the upper echelons of college basketball. Reality is that Roy Williams ain’t likely to be taking up residence in the Loveliest Village anytime soon. So B+ is pretty doggone good — – especially at a football school, and especially in the SEC.