Auburn basketball: What Bruce Pearl, Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown said ahead of NCAA Tournament

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SAN DIEGO — Auburn basketball is back in the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers are in Viejas Arena in San Diego a day away from their first-round game against the College of Charleston.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, shooting guard Bryce Brown and small forward Mustapha Heron met with media members before the Tigers’ open practice Wednesday afternoon.

Here’s what the Tiger trio had to say before Auburn plays the College of Charleston on Friday at 7:36 p.m. ET/6:36 p.m. CT on truTV.

LIVE: Watch Auburn basketball practice in San Diego ahead of NCAA Tournament

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(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl

BRUCE PEARL: It’s great to be back to play for a National Championship. I was reminiscing with friends and family and counted up the fact that this is my 25th time as a manager or a student assistant or assistant coach and or head coach. It’s been a lot of fun getting to play in March. For my children the NCAA Tournament was spring break. When I got out of coaching for a while, they kind of missed that, being on the road to the Final Four and that one shining moment.

I am beyond thrilled that Auburn was able to win a Championship in men’s basketball in the SEC. It’s only happened three times, and it happened in a year when the league was about as good as it’s been in a long, long time.

I think our team was a team that in spite of some challenges came to play every night because we just weren’t able to show up and win. We knew we were up against it. That is hard for really talented, deep teams to do in January and February. So we were able to sneak up, because we came to play every night. Now that you get to March, and we’re not sneaking up on anybody, but everybody is playing hard and fully engaged. The reason I say this is because I’ve been on talented teams. I won a National Championship, Division II in Indiana.

We finished third in our league. We may have been one of those teams that may not have been excited to play in January and February. But by the time we got to the tournament and said we only need to win six games and we knew we were talented enough to do it. The cream does tend to rise to the top.

So for us, we gotta find a way to play better than we have the last six games of the season without Anfernee McLemore. One thing that ailed us is we haven’t had many contact practices. We had a couple this week and survived them and I’m hoping that gives us an edge of trying to guard Charleston and do things we need to be able to do to advance.

Q. It’s kind of a match-up between really elite guards. Talk about Riller and Chealey and what you have seen on them on film and what they present?
BRUCE PEARL: They’re handfuls. The match-up of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown and Riller and Chealey, that’s a key match-up for the outcome of the game. Chealey gets to the foul line 7.5 times a game. He’s crafty. He’s creative. He’s smart. He sells fouls to the officials really well, whether it’s driving downhill, taking advantage of angles, or kicking his leg out from three and creating some contact and getting the official to call. Three-point fouls. He’s smart. He can go either way. He can score at the rim. You gotta guard him from three. You can’t close out short on him. He’s got size. He’s a really good player and he can defend. Riller is an elite scorer, terrific athlete, gets downhill, finishes at the rim, doesn’t need much time to get that thing off. Those guys are tough covers. They’re as tough a cover as we’ve seen all year long when it comes to match-ups. So Davion Mitchell, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are the three guards and their ability to contain those guys will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game.

Q. Bruce, you’ve talked about how are important Jared is to this team’s success or lack of it. Could you talk about what it is about him that makes one guy be that special to what you do?
BRUCE PEARL: Well, I think it’s just like Chealey would be for College of Charleston, Jared is for us. First of all, he’s our quarterback. He’s got the ball in his hands every offensive possession, the beginning of it and he’s got his hands on it at the end of it, a lot of times. He’s our playmaker and he can score.

But his responsibility is to make sure that the other guys on the floor are involved and put into positions to make shots and get them the ball in space and make plays, so on, so forth, and he’s probably our best communicator defensively calling out signals and kinda helping set our defense. So Jared has had a great year and there have been a handful of games he hasn’t played well and we’ve lost in those handful of games. He has to play pretty well for us to win.

Q. Bruce, couple weeks ago when you beat Alabama you have career performances from role players without Mustapha out there. Since then, whether it’s Davion or Chuma or Malik they are not having those kind of contributions and I understand outliars. How important when you talk about everybody contributing when your own three, when three guys scored in double figures, is it for those guys to pick up their contributions offensively?
BRUCE PEARL: It’s crucial, offensively and defensively. We play best when everybody contributes. Obviously, Jared and Mustapha and Bryce are pretty recognized as three of our best players. But truly, you look at how Desean Murray stepped up in the SEC tournament or there have been times when his play as a tough match-up has been significant or Chuma Okeke, he has ability to at times be a major factor in games. He’s played a little like a freshman the last week or two, and he has the ability to pick up and be a major factor. Malik Dunbar was a guy that had a lot to learn to be able to contribute at the highest level of Division I college basketball, but he got a lot of physical ability and he’s got a great heart and great spirit. When we have won games, big games, road games, things like that, we have gotten great contribution from those guys and the big three didn’t have to carry us.

So there is no question if we can get those guys going, not just offensively, but overall, because we’re down to eight guys, that’s it, there’s not a ninth man. The ninth man is Patrick Keim who is a walk-on on scholarship. That’s it.

Q. Bruce, you talked about several times in the season how important that Italy trip was to get your team ready for what they ended up doing this year. Now that you are at the NCAA Tournament and you look back, how important was that trip to get you guys here?
BRUCE PEARL: I think one of the greatest rules that the NCAA has is allowing those foreign trips, from a cultural standpoint, from an academic standpoint. There’s nothing like it in the world. I’ve traveled with teams since I started coaching. Oftentimes, almost always the year following it we’ve had really good seasons. That’s not the reason why we do it, but the guys have said that we went to Italy as a team, we came back as a family.

Regardless of the moments that you would say were the most precious moments of your life, winning and advancing in the NCAA Tournament, the birth of a child, whatever it is, it’s because you did that with people that you care about. You did it with friends and family or teammates. That’s what makes those moments so special. So when you advance in this tournament and it’s special, you realize that the only way you got to advance is because your players or your coaches or others carried you there. You played your role. I’ve got a job to do. Players have a job to do, but without them, without each other, it’s not possible.

Q. What does Chuma need to do to get back playing where he was? Offensively he hasn’t been on.
BRUCE PEARL: I think it’s a confidence factor, Chuma can score multiple ways and kind of relying on him a little bit with just his three ball. He can do more than that. The thing I talk to Chuma about is trusting his instincts. He knows how to play and defend and rotate and take charge. He can do more out there and he is a high-end rebounder.

But for us to win he needs to do more. We talked about losing Anthony, our best rim protector, our best finishers around the basket, someone hack roll or pop. He was a dynamic weapon, but as a result of him playing not more than 20 minutes, Horace is playing more, Desean is playing more and Chuma is playing more. That’s not a bad thing, because they all bring things to the table.

The one thing that none of them are bringing is rim protection. That’s something that Anthony can do that not many 6-7 guys can do in this country and that’s block ’em and change ’em and we clearly miss that. But Chuma is a freshman and having to play center, I didn’t recruit him to play center. He was going to play 3 or 4, but because of no Austin Wiley, no Danjel Purifoy and no Anfernee McLemore he has to play 5 for about 20 minutes a game.

Q. What kind of factor can the Championship in high school be to help you get here?
BRUCE PEARL: I love guys that play for Championships. They got it. They know how to win and that’s something we can rely on this time of year.

Q. Now that you’re here can you talk about two and three years ago how far away it felt or do you know because Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron were coming?
BRUCE PEARL: I thought the way the roster was being built we could get here, but we needed to get here this year. I said at the beginning of the year I thought this was an NCAA Tournament team and I felt like this was the year we were going to make that move. I thought the personnel was there. I needed to make sure I was there, that I was good enough to be able to pull the strings that I needed to do to get us back. Where Auburn belongs.

So I had confidence that this could be a very special year. I wasn’t sure we could win the league, but I knew we could get here and I obviously wanted the kids to be able to experience this. We’ve got to play College of Charleston, New Mexico State and Clemson. One of those four are going to the Sweet 16 and I think all four teams in this bracket think they have a legitimate chance. I don’t see anybody in this bracket regardless of being seeded four and Clemson five, head and shoulders above anybody else. It’s going to be very competitive.

Q. Beyond Mustapha being a great ball player, as you know he’s also an activist off court against gun violence. What do you think about that?
BRUCE PEARL: I think it’s great. I think when student-athletes use their platform to be able to try to make a difference, Mustapha has a program at home against gun violence. He’s also got a reading program at home for kids to promote reading and he is an activist. He is a social activist and I think he would like to try to do more. He’s not afraid to try and right wrongs. He leads by example. He’s a hard-working, dedicated, disciplined student-athlete that’s positioning himself to do things for himself and he came to Auburn to try to make changes and he has and I think he will continue to do that.

Q. Bruce, with all that your program has gone through this year off and on the court what is it about the make-up of these kids that has not allowed for the most part for that stuff to seep in and allowed them to have the success that they have had?
BRUCE PEARL: I think if you think about 365 days in a year and you think about everything you’ve got to do all day every day to put yourself in a position to play for a Championship, whether it’s academically, weight room, diet, rest, practice, individual workouts, shots at night and then you go through a process with an internal investigation or answering questions from the NCAA, you know, you only do that for a few hours, or whatever. That’s it!

Then you move on and go back to focusing on the things that you are at Auburn to do as a student-athlete. It doesn’t dominate our process because it doesn’t dominate our time. The kids had to go through the process. They went through the process and they’re all certified as eligible and we moved on. I feel badly for a couple of guys whose eligibility was denied because of mistakes takes that were made and I feel accountable and responsible and with those guys we’d be even better, but they’re out right now and we have to move forward without them and the kids have done a great job of that.

Q. Do you feel like you will come out of this FBI mess personally okay and when do you expect to talk to the Auburn investigators?
BRUCE PEARL: I’m not going to comment specifically about that, but I am confident when everything is said and done, that I will still be coaching at Auburn.

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(Cat Wofford/Auburn Athletics)

Auburn SG Bryce Brown and SF Mustapha Heron

Q. You guys and Coach Pearl have talked a lot about Jared and how vital he is to this team winning. Could y’all talk about what that is exactly that he brings that makes him so important?
BRYCE BROWN: You know, he’s the extra threat that we have and he’s one of the leaders on the team. He has been overlooked just like quite a few of us on the team and he brings that dog to the team along with me and Mustapha and other players like to shine. So he’s a great asset for us. He’s a little general for us and he plays big for us.

Q. Guys, you had a little injury, illness, whatever, down the stretch. Are you guys 100% ready, physically?
MUSTAPHA HERON: 100% ready to go.

BRYCE BROWN: Near.

Q. What do you think the key is for success tomorrow night for you guys?
MUSTAPHA HERON: Rebounding, playing hard, coming out with energy, can’t come out slow and lackadaisical, come out with maximum energy and effort.

BRYCE BROWN: They’ve got good guards, so containing our match-ups, and like Mustapha said, play hard and outrebound the other team.

Q. Bruce and some of your teammates have talked about how important the Italy trip was for you guys to get this far this season. Looking back at that now that you are here in the NCAA Tournament how much did that trip lay the foundation?
BRYCE BROWN: I appreciate the administrators and everybody allowing us to go because it is a huge reason for our success right now. It’s definitely helped us build chemistry and relationships with all the team with our whole team and the coaches. It definitely benefited this team. It’s taken us a long way.

MUSTAPHA HERON: I think the mentality out there was us against the world, foreign country, foreign people. We didn’t know anybody; it was just us. Same thing. We’re in foreign territory right now, so it’s us against the world.

Q. Guys, you both are the leading scorers on this team at times when you have been out the other one has had to step up or other guys have had to step up. On this stage, in this caliber of this game do you each feel a bigger onus to contribute more than what you have done offensively?
BRYCE BROWN: I feel like we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, and that’s providing scoring and winning our match-up. We have done that all season long. That’s the reason why we help lead our team along with other players. We go out there and play hard and compete, and, you know, let our game do the talking.

MUSTAPHA HERON: Yeah.

Auburn basketball-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Mustapha Heron-Auburn bracketology-bracketology-Selection Sunday-NCAA Tournament
(Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

Q. Coach talked about all season you guys have as well about your best when everybody contributes and your record when everybody scores in four or five double figures is fantastic but your losses have come when three have been in double figures. Do you feel like you have to get the role players, the other players on this team more involved in order to have better success?
MUSTAPHA HERON: Like you said, when everybody contributes we won. So that’s what we’ve gotta do.

Q. For Bryce, you talked about it, but can you put into words when this means to be at the NCAA Tournament and did you feel like your freshman year you were anywhere close? Did it feel like so far away for you? And for Mustapha, you had an opportunity to go to a lot of schools that had NCAA Tournament histories and better winning traditions. Was this part of building something at Auburn? Why you picked where you picked?
BRYCE BROWN: Well, yeah, for me, it was definitely something that I didn’t see that would be this near in the future from when I was a freshman. So, yeah, definitely from just seeing the progress that this program has made from my freshman to junior year the caliber of players we are getting and their mentalities and just how they think about the game and how we go about it as professionals. I feel like it’s been a different environment because we’re all trying to make it to the next level and that’s how we play as well, I feel like.

MUSTAPHA HERON: I think for me it was just a matter of going somewhere where I felt like I could make my own mark. You look at the big name schools that everybody wants to go to that have a tradition, I kind of wanted to help start a tradition somewhere else and I think that’s what we’re doing right now.

Q. Mustapha, this team is loaded with a lot of guys who were not only good high school players but played on state Championship teams and strong teams. Do you think that carried over into the team’s success this year?
MUSTAPHA HERON: Definitely. I think winning mentality travels no matter where you go. So if you put a bunch of winners together you’re going to get a winning program and that’s what we’re starting to do.

Q. I wonder if you could talk about how challenging this season has been going back to last fall and everything that happened, you lost your teammates, you lost an assistant coach. It seemed crazy back then. How challenging has the season been since then?
BRYCE BROWN: It was challenging, but part of the things that were happening were things that were out of our control and our coach preached to us just do things that you’re able to control and we can’t control some of the things that were happening at the beginning of the season.

But I can tell you that we’ve overcome those things and we ended up having a pretty good season. We have much more to show and much more to accomplish.

Q. Do you feel the same way, Mustapha?
MUSTAPHA HERON: Definitely the same way.

Q. You guys talked about the guard match-ups in this one and it’s going to be a lot of one-on-one match-ups in this game in particular. What do you see against matching up against Riller and Chealey in this particular one and Chealey’s ability to get to the line?
BRYCE BROWN: It will be interesting to match-up with those great guards and it doesn’t mean we won’t need a big play out of a guy like Desean and Horace and Davion and Malik, we need those guys to play. It’s not just about the two guards. Me and Mustapha are going to get everybody in the locker room focused in and of course those two match-ups, and worrying about their match-ups and outplaying their match-up as well as we try to outplay ours.

Q. Bruce and Jared said last week they felt the team needed a reset this week heading into practice. I know you guys had a contact practice this week and trying to get back to where you were at earlier in the season. Do you feel like you guys have done that?
MUSTAPHA HERON: I think the biggest thing was definitely after the tournament trying to find our identity again, the way we defended, the way we played. It was just — everything was based on trying to find out who we were again and trying to get back to that and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.

Q. Bryce, among all the things that you have gone through injury-wise this last month it seemed like in the last on-campus practice you were going through a stomach illness. Have you been able to move past that? Do you feel like it will be an issue?
BRYCE BROWN: I’m fine. I was about the first 5, 10 minutes of that practice. I didn’t get much sleep the night before, that’s all that really was. But I’m feeling good, feeling great.

Q. Mustapha, you never said anything about Jared. Could you talk about him and what a guy that can facilitate like he does as well as shoot like he does?
MUSTAPHA HERON: It’s pretty basic. When he plays well we win. When he doesn’t we don’t win. He is the general of the team. He controls the floor, he controls the balance of the team, the offense and on the defensive end. When he does what he does, we win if he doesn’t we don’t win, which goes for about everybody, pretty much.

The post Auburn basketball: What Bruce Pearl, Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown said ahead of NCAA Tournament appeared first on SEC Country.

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