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'In great position' - Bruce Pearl expects Auburn to play in 2018 NCAA Tournament
A year from now, Bruce Pearl expects to be courtside, instead of in studio, for the NCAA Tournament.
March 16, 2017

By Jeff Shearer
AuburnTigers.com

AUBURN, Ala. - This year, on camera. Next year, courtside.

That’s Bruce Pearl’s plan for March Madness.

“I think next year the NCAA Tournament is realistic and it should be our expectation,” Pearl said.

Auburn’s quotable coach is serving as a studio analyst Thursday and Friday on the four networks carrying the NCAA Tournament.

It’s a gig Pearl believes will be “one and done,” because he expects the Tigers to participate in the Big Dance in 2018.

“It’s a strong statement but I don’t mind making it because that’s where I think we should be,” Pearl said. “And it will be harder to be there next year because the league’s going to be better next year.”

This season, Pearl’s third on the Plains, Auburn went 18-14, the Tigers’ first winning season since 2008-09.

Pearl bases his bullish forecast on Auburn’s roster, which returns nearly 70 percent of its scoring and rebounding, almost doubling the percentages of Pearl’s first three Auburn teams.

“No team in the country has four freshmen as their four leading scorers. Not one,” said Pearl, referring to Mustapha Heron (15.2 points per game), Danjel Purifoy (11.5 ppg), Jared Harper (11.4 ppg) and Austin Wiley (8.8 ppg).

“And one of them is not Anfernee McLemore. He’s pretty good, too,” Pearl said.

Auburn also returns juniors-to-be Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer, while adding incoming freshmen Davion Mitchell and Chuma Okeke. Desean Murray, who sat out last season after transferring from Presbyterian, will be a junior. TJ Lang will be a senior.

 

 

“That is going to put us in a really good position to learn from a lot of the things we did well and the things that we left on the table,” Pearl said. “That bodes really well for us.”

What Auburn did well was score, averaging 80.4 points per game.

“When you finish 11th but you’re arguably the second best offensive team in the league, it tells you where you need to grow, and there’s plenty of opportunity for that,” Pearl said.

Pearl says Auburn will work on defense in the offseason, with the head coach focusing on fundamentals.

“I’m going to be very involved with it,” he said. “I’m going to have my hands all over it. It’s our area for the greatest growth and we didn’t grow enough as a team defensively this year.”

Improved free throw shooting, Pearl said, could have made the difference in the handful of games Pearl described as missed opportunities.

“If we shoot 75 percent instead of 65 percent, we probably get those four games we talked about,” Pearl said. “Let alone the defense and rebounding. Just shoot 10 percent better at the foul line.”

Pearl believes the pain from an early SEC Tournament exit will fuel Auburn’s offseason development more than participating in non-NCAA or NIT events.

“We had our chances. We didn’t get there. Own it,” he said. “That lesson is going to be a lot more than any lesson we’d be learning by continuing to play.

“They’ll understand where we missed. And they won’t let it happen again. I just haven’t had the benefit of that since I’ve been here. And having won a lot of championships and built a lot of programs, you have to have that.”

An overseas trip in August, possibly to Italy, will also position Auburn for success next season, Pearl said.

“It will be a great educational, academic as well as basketball, experience,” he said. “And every year I’ve gone, the following year has been a terrific bounce back. It’s a great way to grow closer together.”

With his orange tie, Bruce Pearl will be easy to spot on television this week. A year from now, he expects other analysts to be commenting while Auburn returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

“We are in the upper division of any power five conference as far as the status of our program, where we are right now,” Pearl said. “Our program is in great position. Our program is in really good shape.”

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter:

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