SAN DIEGO — Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl, ever the optimist, says he knew the Tigers had it in them this season.
“I thought the way the roster was being built we could get here, but we needed to get here this year,” Pearl said Thursday. “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.”
Pearl says he saw Auburn possibly ending its long NCAA Tournament drought in the 2017-18 season, his fourth with the program. Junior guard Bryce Brown, who has been with Pearl for the last three seasons, had a harder time envisioning that.
“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,” Brown said.
In Auburn’s first two seasons with Pearl, the Tigers had losing seasons. But help was on the way. Pearl had the first 5-star player in program history, Mustapha Heron, come aboard in 2016.
Heron, who hails from Connecticut, decided to come to the Plains over a host of elite programs that went to the tournament year in and year out. Heron was 5 years old when a Marquis Daniels-led Auburn team last danced in March.
“I think for me it was just a matter of going somewhere where I felt like I could make my own mark,” Heron said. “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.”
Heron was the centerpiece of a recruiting class that featured blue-chip point guard Jared Harper and center Austin Wiley, who reclassified to join the Tigers a half-season early. Anfernee McLemore, who later became Wiley’s replacement in the lineup as he sat out with eligibility issues, also joined the program in the 2016 class. Former 4-star Danjel Purifoy also played in his first season with the program.
Auburn had a hot start to the 2016-17 season under Pearl, but it faded quickly down the stretch. Poor second-half defense doomed the Tigers in a season that finished 7-11 in SEC play.
Yet Auburn knew the turnaround was coming. The program’s rising level of talent was undeniable — Auburn added mid-major star transfer Desean Murray, along with two more blue-chip freshmen in Davion Mitchell and Chuma Okeke for the 2017 season.
“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,” Brown said. “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.”
Even without Wiley and Purifoy, Auburn made the big breakthrough in 2017-18. The Tigers went wire-to-wire as SEC regular-season champions. The first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 was a guarantee for a team that spent most of the last decade-plus in the bottom half of the SEC standings.
“Just a surreal feeling,” Harper said this week. “Auburn’s come a lot way with the basketball program and we’ve all come a long way within it.”
While his players might not have seen it coming this quickly, Pearl did. And he knew that through the numerous off-court issues this season, Auburn still had what it took to make it to March.
“I thought the personnel was there,” Pearl said. “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.”
Brown and center Horace Spencer — who joined the starting lineup after McLemore’s injury in February — have been around the longest of Pearl’s scholarship players.
They remember the second-half collapses, the lopsided scores and the losing records. But now, they’re at the NCAA Tournament as members of a top-4 seeded team.
“It means a lot, just because I’ve seen the lows, and I’ve seen the highs,” Brown said. “Knowing where the program has came from, it’s amazing.”
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