By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Before coaching his first game at Auburn, Bruce Pearl made a splash on campus, taking a turn in a dunk tank for a fraternity's philanthropy.
Two years later, Pearl is making a splash nationally in college basketball recruiting.
After landing the first 5-star recruit in program history in 2016, freshman Mustapha Heron, Pearl's 2017 class is currently ranked No. 1 nationally.
"You need one of those classes that everyone around the country turns their head and says, `Wow, what's happening there?'" said Seth Greenberg, an ESPN analyst who has known Pearl for decades.
"What's happened there is that Auburn now has become a national player. A program that the best players in the country are taking the time to learn more about and buying into. That's exactly what's happened.
"The key to competing is putting together back-to-back recruiting classes," Greenberg said. "That validates the recruiting class before, and that's exactly what Bruce has done. When you validate your recruiting class by putting classes on top of each other, that's when you become a team that is going to be in the NCAA tournament and compete."
Other national analysts are also taking note of Pearl's recruiting prowess, and what it might mean for Auburn in coming seasons.
"I think it took a little bit more time than some people maybe anticipated with Bruce," says ESPN's Jeff Goodman. "But now you're talking about, in a span of two classes, you've got three guys that are top 50, and kind of foundation guys to upgrade the talent.
"If he can get the combination of the talent which he's got coming in, and then get them to play as hard as they did at Tennessee, which I think he will, I think this is a program that, in the next few years, I think in years four and five is where you're really going to see Auburn be relevant nationally," Goodman said.
Jon Rothstein, a college basketball insider for CBS Sports Network, said Auburn is positioned to emerge as a contender in the SEC.
"When you think about Bruce Pearl's teams at Tennessee, they kind of became the SEC's third flagship program behind Kentucky and Florida," Rothstein said. "And he's trying to emulate that same model at Auburn. I think Auburn has a chance, if they stay healthy, which obviously they couldn't do last year, to be in a situation where he can be competitive next year, and then make a real jump, and make a run at the NCAA tournament in 2018."
Goodman credits Pearl's tenacity for Auburn's recruiting success.
"His energy and his reputation. His passion for everything he does. He's not afraid to go up against anybody. He's not intimidated. Some people are," Goodman said.
"He relates very well to people. The high energy, the passion, that's not something you see every day. He somehow finds a way to keep that at a high level all the time."
What they're saying....
Seth Greenberg/ESPN: "I think it's part of the process. When Bruce was hired, he was hired to rebuild a program, not reload a program. When you rebuild a program, there is a process. There's a process that must be followed. One was his hiring, two was the extreme enthusiasm and the excitement that was created, the energy that was created with it. The crowds, and the trust that was developed within the community."
"You've got to plant seeds. And what Bruce has been able to do is, he's planted seeds, and people are taking notice. They're taking notice that Auburn is serious about -- not just having a basketball team, but having a basketball program. And everything that surrounds it. Bruce is as good a salesman; he has an incredible work ethic. He plays a style of basketball that players want to play. And they want to play for him. If you speak to his former players, they all love that experience. And he's done a great job of cultivating the right people to have this breakthrough recruiting class. And that's what you need. The key is maintaining momentum."
"This season, with (Danjel) Purifoy and Mustapha Heron, all of a sudden you add two elite athletes to the style of play that Coach Pearl wants to play. Two guys who were nationally recruited, who people are excited about, who can play with anyone in the country, and were recruited by anyone in the country. So now, this is the next step. Now, you've got the type of athlete, you're building classes, you're building continuity."
"I'm a big believer in the SEC, and maybe what I would call the `new SEC.' You've got universities that have had great basketball teams that now are committed to having great basketball programs, when you hire the people who have been hired in that league. I look at this league in the coming years as a league that's going to have five, six, and maybe seven teams in the NCAA tournament. I really do believe that. Because you have every resource needed in that league to be excellent. To be nationally competitive. And now you've invested with coaches, invested in the manner in which you run your program. That's what's happened at Auburn. Bruce, in a lot of ways, got a little bit of a head start, and now you see the results of the last two years of planting seeds."
Jon Rothstein/CBS Sports Network: "Mustapha Heron. Nobody in the conference is going to outwork Mustapha. He's going to be as prepared and as mentally ready to play as any freshman in the SEC."
"The combination of Jared Harper and Ronnie Johnson give Auburn a unique dynamic at point guard in terms of experience and youth. I think Auburn's perimeter is well-suited to do battle this year in the SEC. I think the big question is the front court, which obviously Bruce Pearl addressed in the 2017 class."
Jeff Goodman/ESPN: "When Bruce was hired, I think people expected it to be right away. Like, `He's going to get this thing going.' Well, it doesn't work that way. He didn't inherit a whole lot. He's had to put together patchwork teams, even this coming season with the grad transfers, add a few and maybe they'll be a little bit better this year. To me, this year will be a successful year if they make the NIT."
"And I'm not sure fans want to hear that, but if you make the NIT this year, then you put yourself in position to be an NCAA tournament team in year four, which is really, with what Bruce inherited, the goal at the end of the day."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer