Hoops on The Plains: How Auburn Became a Basketball Powerhouse

by Marc Goldstein

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Shannon/Auburn athletics

Deep in the south, head coach Bruce Pearl took in the scene as his Auburn Tigers dribbled out the clock in an 80-71 victory over Kentucky on Jan. 22.

For Pearl and the Tigers, this has been a long time coming. As a program, Auburn spent the better part of the last two decades as a doormat.

Since the days of Charles Barkley dominating the paint, the Tigers have often been an easy win for teams like Kentucky to trample on the way to success in March. For the first time in perhaps forever, No. 1 Auburn is the team to beat in college hoops. 

Taking a Chance

The transformation began in 2014 when Auburn hired the former Tennessee coach. Pearl had left the Volunteers amidst violations in what the NCAA called “unethical conduct”. Nonetheless, the Tigers took a chance on the high-risk, high-reward coach.

His first season was not pretty as the Tigers struggled early under Pearl. However, it is very common for big-name coaches to struggle in their inaugural season. It often takes a few years for recruiting to come to fruition on the floor. In his next season, the Tigers were just as terrible, finishing with a worse record than the year prior. 

One thing that has defined Pearl, however, is his recruiting prowess. The Tigers continually moved up the national ranks for recruiting classes. In 2020, they brought in the 10th-ranked class in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

With the talent that Pearl brings to schools, there is usually an asterisk that accompanies it. The program has come under scrutiny after alleged recruiting violations occurred during Pearl’s tenure. Auburn received a 4-year probation for the violations.

This brings forth the complicated legacy that Pearl carries. Violations aside, the Auburn athletic department clearly was able to look past this. Auburn recently signed him to a lifetime extension.

A Power Emerges

Regardless of how Pearl is off the court, the on-court performances will be his legacy at Auburn. The Tigers have made their way to national prominence after a miraculous Final Four run in 2019.

After the pandemic-shortened season ended any hopes of another deep run, Auburn took a step back in 2020-21. As soon as the season ended for the Tigers, the entire program committed themselves to a season of destiny. 

The entire operation began in the transfer portal. North Carolina big man Walker Kessler announced his intent to transfer before being scooped up by Auburn. The same story applies for KD Johnson from Georgia and Wendell Green from Eastern Kentucky.

The addition of five-star forward Jabari Smith has made a huge impact as well. Smith is the leading scorer for the Tigers and has put his entire skill set on display.

Like any modern big man, he has a unicorn-like ability to stretch the floor, handle the ball and patrol the paint. The Tigers have been able to lean on the freshman in crunch time to get buckets. His win shares per 40 minutes — a statistic that measures how well a player does in a similar manner to wins above replacement — is the fifth-best in the SEC. 

The Mission Continues

The Tigers have won 19 straight games and are a perfect 10-0 in SEC play. They have defied the odds to become one of the most surprising teams so far this season. Many might be wondering how they have made such a quick turnaround, especially after losing stars like Sharife Cooper and JT Thor to the NBA.

Simply put, they can score the ball. With four legitimate options in their starting lineup alone, they are able to wreck defenses.

Considering they have two big men that are taller than 6-foot-10, the Tigers force teams to double in the post on many possessions, leaving shooters open. The key in this scenario is the big man identifying the double team and making the correct pass — something they have done a great job of.

On the defensive end, they use the modern, NBA-esque style to hound teams. Auburn has incredible length and athleticism, so it makes perfect sense that it ranks in the top 50 nationally in steals, blocks, opponent field goal percentage and rebounding. One thing that has stood out is its ability to defend without fouling.

A lot of young teams have a tendency to foul, especially young big men. Auburn entered Saturday’s 74-72 win over Georgia, averaging a mere 17.9 personal fouls per game. 

For the Tigers, the only question is how their game will translate to the NCAA Tournament where the statistics mean nothing. For Auburn to go far, not only will it need to get lucky, like everyone else, but it will have to rely heavily on Pearl.

In the tournament, talent can be negated and the team that has better coaching wins often. If Pearl can shake some of his postseason demons and deliver a title to Auburn, all of the allegations, violations and losing would be worth it in the end. As the nation’s top-ranked team, Pearl’s Tigers have plenty of believers.

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