SAN DIEGO — Before Auburn basketball small forward Mustapha Heron left for Italy late last summer, he already had March in mind.
“We’re trying to do big things,” Heron said. “Trying to make the tournament this year.”
Seven months later, Auburn is more than 6,000 miles away from where it finished its preseason tour of Italy. The Tigers are in San Diego for the NCAA Tournament, ending a 15-year absence from the sport’s biggest event.
And Auburn wouldn’t be on the Pacific coast this weekend without its time near the Mediterranean Sea.
“Italy made the culture for the team,” junior center Horace Spencer said this week. “It made it more of a family.”
Every four years, the NCAA allows teams to go on a preseason trip overseas. And in coach Bruce Pearl’s fourth season, the Tigers headed to Italy, where they played four European teams in a span of six days.
“There’s nothing like it in the world,” Pearl said this week. “I’ve traveled with teams since I started coaching. Oftentimes, almost always the year following it we’ve had really good seasons.”
A “really good season” would undersell what Auburn did post-Italy. The Tigers came back to the States and won their first SEC regular-season championship since 1999. They were locks for their first NCAA Tournament trip since 2003.
“It is a huge reason for our success right now,” junior guard Bryce Brown said. “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.”
The competition in Italy was nowhere near as stiff as what the Tigers would face in the regular season. Auburn beat its four opponents by a combined 193 points. The closest anyone came to defeating Auburn came in the second game, when the Tigers took down BC Silute of Lithuania by 24.
On the floor, Auburn played with a faster-paced, longer-range shooting offense than it did at the disappointing end of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers’ young core, most of them fresh off their freshman campaigns, grew comfortable on the floor with each other.
The Tigers learned how to move the ball and score without center Austin Wiley, who was injured during the trip. Sophomore point guard Jared Harper averaged 7 assists per game in Italy and looked like more of a floor general following extra offseason work with NBA star Damian Lillard.
“After last season, I knew that we needed a leader on the court,” Harper said. “So, I tried to make strides to become a better leader, just for my team. Not only scoring. I was a great scorer last year, but I added other aspects to my game. … That first experience in Italy, that was a great learning experience, learning with each other, being able to mesh. It’s just allowed for us to continue to try to make another run.”
Sophomore center Anfernee McLemore, Wiley’s replacement in the lineup, averaged 11.3 points — the second most on the team — and 8.5 rebounds in Italy. Auburn plugged in new pieces such as transfer power forward Desean Murray and freshman Chuma Okeke, who averaged a double-double on the tour.
“It was big,” Okeke said. “Going over there, we really bonded together, and that’s what helped us going forward into the season. … That’s what really built our confidence. It got us playing together, off the court, we started bonding more, and that’s what helped us.”
That improvement without Wiley was vital. The sophomore center and power forward Danjel Purifoy weren’t able to play a single minute during Auburn’s regular season because of their involvement in an FBI investigation that led to the arrest and firing of assistant coach Chuck Person.
As Auburn battled through tough times during the season — the absences, the exhibition loss to a Division II school, the reports of Pearl’s job being in jeopardy — it kept pointing back to Italy.
“I think more getting an opportunity to go this summer to Italy and begin the process of playing together, trusting, respecting enjoying each other had a lot more to do than simply the adversity,” Pearl said in January.
While the on-court benefits were obvious, the most important work overseas might have come away from the court. In an unfamiliar country and facing completely unknown competition, Auburn had to stick together.
“We went to Italy as a team and all we did was spend time with each other, and we didn’t do anything else, really,” Spencer said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t know anybody out there in Italy. We just stayed together, and it built a foundation to be a family.”
In Pearl’s eyes, a team couldn’t have been able to succeed through all of Auburn’s adversity this season. A team couldn’t have been able to overcome the loss of two of its best players and still have the program’s best season in two decades. A team couldn’t have been able to shut out all the outside noise.
But a family could — and it did. And now it’s in the NCAA Tournament.
“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,” Pearl said Thursday. “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.”
Auburn will face those familiar feelings in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are in an unfamiliar venue, playing teams they haven’t faced. If they win, they’ll play multiple games in quick succession. Like the Italy trip, Auburn will be coming off disappointment — the Tigers have only won two of their last six games.
But now that Auburn has accomplished the goal Heron talked about before flying to the other side of the world, he sees another run coming.
“I think the mentality out there was us against the world — foreign country, foreign people,” Heron said. “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.”
The post Auburn basketball wouldn’t have March in San Diego without August in Italy appeared first on SEC Country.
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