By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Bruce Pearl’s message in late February matches what he shared in his many preseason talks to Auburn fans. Get to postseason this year. Build from there.
“It’s something I thought was a realistic goal,” Pearl said. “It was an expectation of mine. If we could meet that expectation, it would be very positive.”
For much of Pearl’s third season, Auburn played its way onto the elusive NCAA Tournament bubble, with a Rating Percentage Index that merited inclusion in conversations about brackets and bubbles.
A three-game losing streak ended that talk, but not Pearl’s hope that Auburn (16-11, 5-9) will still have games to play after the SEC Tournament in Nashville in two weeks. A berth in the NIT would be Auburn’s first since 2009.
“We’re all disappointed. They look at the standings, too. And they know where we want to be and they know where we are,” Pearl said. “But I’ve got a great locker room. Those guys are engaged. They are in early. They’re staying late. They want to try to win these last games that they can to try to get into postseason.”
Auburn is tied with Mississippi State for 11th place in the SEC. For the Tigers to avoid playing on the SEC’s Tournament’s opening day, Wednesday, March 8, Auburn would need to finish in the top 10 in the league.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us to not play on that first day,” he said.
Auburn plays at LSU (9-17, 1-13) Tuesday at 6 p.m. on SEC Network. The Tigers conclude the regular season with home games against Arkansas and Missouri, with a road trip to Georgia in between.
“If you look at our last four games in the league and what’s it going to take for us to not play on the first night, I think we’ve got to try to win three out of the next four,” Pearl said. “That’s certainly something that our team has talked about. It also keeps us on the path toward where we want to be as far as still being in contention for postseason. That’s what our focus is.
“To do that, we’ve got to start by going down to LSU and playing against a really good offensive team. (Antonio) Blakeney, he’s scoring as well as any guard in the league. He’s a terrific player and a tough cover.
Pearl said, despite LSU’s 13-game SEC losing streak, the Bengal Tigers’ offense is accomplished.
“That’s going to put a challenge on our defense, which has been not something that we’ve been able to count on and certainly in league play,” he said.
In Auburn’s 78-74 home win over LSU on January 18, Horace Spencer contributed 10 points and seven rebounds. Spencer injured his shoulder two weeks later and had surgery last week.
“We miss him,” Pearl said, citing Spencer’s defense, rebounding and toughness. “That was a big loss.”
The only team in the nation whose top four scorers are all freshmen, Pearl said Auburn’s newcomers are adjusting to the speed, physicality, effort and energy required to play defense at this level.
“The biggest transition from high school to college is on the defensive end,” he said. “That’s the biggest area for growth, and that’s going to be the biggest area for us to continue to improve.”
— Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) February 20, 2017
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer