By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Bruce Pearl's SEC allegiance goes only so far. As much as he takes pride in the Southeastern Conference, the Auburn basketball coach knows the success of his rivals might make his job more difficult.
“I don’t always root for my brothers in the SEC. Human nature sometimes makes it difficult to do that,” Pearl said. “But I do on this weekend for sure.”
Auburn (13-7, 3-5) is one of 10 Southeastern Conference teams competing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Tigers play at Texas Christian (14-6) Saturday at 5 p.m.
“The 10 games matter. Where are we going to wind up? Are we going to go 5-5? Can we go 6-4 against what everybody says is the No. 1 overall conference in the country?”
Pearl sees commonalities between Auburn and TCU, including similar offensive sets. “We run some of the things that they do. We don’t run them as well as they run them,” Pearl said.
“They’ve been playing better than us,” Pearl said of the Horned Frogs, ranked No. 36 in RPI. Auburn ranks No. 71 in RPI.
Pearl lauded the timing of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, taking place the week before Super Bowl LI.
“There’s a void out there,” he said. “They’ll be looking for something to watch. They’ll get a chance to see Kentucky and Kansas in late January. It’s almost like an NCAA Tournament game or a Final Four type game.”
After winning three of four SEC games, including back-to-back home wins over LSU and Alabama, the Tigers struggled Tuesday at South Carolina, losing 98-69.
“Defense and rebounding win championships,” Pearl said. “If you look at the top four teams in the league, I bet you see four of the top defenses in the league. We definitely have room for improvement in that area.”
Freshman Anfernee McLemore scored a career-high 18 against the Gamecocks.
“We have five freshman who are playing in the top nine players,” Pearl said. “And they’re all growing and improving and getting great experience this year. You have been able to see at times each one of them really shine.
“I think Mustapha (Heron) has been the most consistent of the freshmen, but they have a long way to go. What the people around the league or people around the country see is that this is a terrific group that has already accomplished a lot, but they’ve got so much room to get better. That’s what I see.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer