By Scott Scroggins
‘I’ve always believed that you schedule where you want your program to be regardless of whether it is ready or not’ – Auburn’s Bruce Pearl
When Bruce Pearl was hired as Auburn’s head coach in March 2014, Pearl said he was going to play the best schedule he could possibly play. Based on the Who’s Who of teams Auburn has played since his arrival on the Plains, it’s apparent Pearl has done just that. The Tigers have played the likes of Xavier, Oklahoma State and Colorado in Pearl’s first two seasons at Auburn, and this season is going to be no different.
Auburn released its 2016-17 non-conference schedule last month in anticipation of Pearl’s third season leading the Tigers. Auburn is playing six teams that won at least 20 games in 2015-16 and as many as five 2016 NCAA Tournament teams, including Oklahoma, who reached the 2016 Final Four.
“I think this year we can take another step and be a postseason team,” said Pearl. “I believe in these players, I believe in their work ethic, and I believe in what we do. So, we’re going to have depth at every position. We’ve got two really good players, at least two really good players, at every position. That bodes well for competition, for depth. It will allow us to play faster and try to turn people over, and from a style of play standpoint, get a little closer to the way my teams have always played.”
Auburn will face Oklahoma in the Hall of Fame’s Birthday of Basketball in the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Dec. 21, the 125th anniversary of the day the game of basketball was invented. The Sooners have averaged 24 wins over the last four seasons.
Auburn play four games in the Cancun Classic. The Tigers play Georgia State on Nov. 14 and Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 17 in Auburn Arena before travelling to Mexico to face 2016 NCAA Tournament participant Texas Tech on Nov. 22 and either Purdue or Utah State on Nov. 23 in the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya in Cancun. The Boilermakers finished last season ranked No. 12 by the Associated Press after going 26-9 and have been in the NCAA Tournament eight times in the last 10 seasons.
Auburn will play in New York City for the first time in program history when the Tigers face Boston College in Madison Square Garden in the inaugural Under Armour “Reunion” on Dec. 12.
“To be able to play in Madison Square Garden for the first time in Auburn basketball history and knowing that I think we’re going to bring as many fans to that Under Armour Classic as anybody,” Pearl said. “You’ve got Boston College, Seton Hall, Auburn and South Carolina, and obviously, Boston College and Seton Hall will have an advantage geographically.
“But I’ve heard from so many of our Auburn fans that are going to take the show on the road and show that we are not your typical SEC men’s basketball program. We’re going to take the show on the road, and we’re going to represent at Madison Square Garden, both on and off the court.”
In the first of a two-game series, Auburn will travel to UConn on Dec. 23 to close out the pre-conference portion of its schedule. The Huskies, who lead the country with four national championships since 1999, will make a return trip to Auburn Arena in 2017.
Auburn will appear in the SEC/Big 12 challenge for the fourth consecutive season when the Tigers travel to TCU on Jan. 28.
Auburn plays UAB in Birmingham for the first time since 1998 and its first game in Bartow Arena since 1996 on Dec. 3.
The Tigers will play home games against USC-Upstate on Nov. 29, Coastal Carolina on Dec. 15 and Mercer on Dec. 18.
Playing a difficult schedule is nothing new for Pearl. In Pearl’s previous eight seasons in the SEC, two at Auburn and six at Tennessee, his teams have averaged a strength of schedule ranking of 14.08 in the nation by RealTimeRPI.com, including five top six rankings.
In Pearl’s six seasons at Tennessee, the Volunteers were 10-8 in regular season non-conference games against ranked opponents. Included in that are 14 games away from Thompson-Boling Arena. Pearl led Tennessee to five non-conference victories over Top 10 teams.
The 2005-06 Volunteers became just the second team in school history to defeat two teams ranked in the top six of the Associated Press poll with victories at No. 6 Texas and vs. No. 2 Florida. In Pearl’s second season at Tennessee, the Volunteers made it back-to-back victories over the Longhorns with a thrilling 111-105 victory over Texas and National Player of the Year Kevin Durant.
Pearl twice led the Volunteers to victories over the No. 1 ranked team in the country, 66-62 at Memphis in 2008 and 76-68 over Kansas in 2010. After its victory over top-ranked Memphis in 2008, Tennessee was ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history.
“I’ve always believed that you schedule where you want your program to be regardless of whether it is ready or not,” said Pearl. “This is one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college basketball and our program will be challenged. But, if we can manage to win a couple of games that we are not supposed to and grind out a few others, we could put our program in position to go someplace we haven’t gone in a long time, and that is postseason.”
Although Auburn has not been in the NCAA Tournament since 2003, playing deep into March is nothing new for Pearl. The Volunteers’ 65 SEC wins during Pearl’s six-year tenure were more than any other team in the league over that span and Tennessee reached the NCAA Tournament all six years under Pearl, including back-to-back Sweet 16 trips in 2007 and 2008 and the school’s only Elite 8 in 2010 and finished the season ranked in the Top 25 four times, including its highest final ranking in school history at five in 2008.
In Pearl’s first two seasons at Auburn, the Tigers played seven road games and four neutral site games against non-conference opponents, and Auburn will play three road games and two neutral site games during its non-conference schedule this season.
“About the only thing it’s missing is a great home non-conference game, but it’s not easy to get great teams to come to Auburn,” said Pearl. “I’m hoping that’s going to change. So, as a result, we have to travel to different places.”
Auburn hosts back-to-back Atlantic Sun champion and 2016 NCAA Tournament participant North Florida at Auburn Arena on Friday, Nov. 11 in the season opener after a home exhibition game against Montevallo on Nov 4.