Auburn Tigers’ Bruce Pearl overachieving amid NCAA and FBI investigation
AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl was slightly hobbled as he led his team through practice last Monday. He had knee surgery about a year ago, and he said that despite his noticeable limp, he feels much better than he did before he went under the knife.
Pearl was in good spirits. Auburn was in the midst of a 14-game win streak, the longest such streak in the nation. The Tigers were ranked 17th in the AP poll — the program’s first top-25 ranking in 15 years — and the brand of basketball they’re playing is enough to make any coach smile.
Auburn is undersized and, arguably, possesses less talent than many of its opponents. But the Tigers play hard, and they’re unselfish. They fight for rebounds and second-chance points and move the ball well.
Heading into the week, Auburn ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring, despite not having a single player in the top 100 in points. Rather, four players average double-figures, and five players average more than five rebounds per game.
“This team has great chemistry,” Pearl said.
Sitting on a love seat overlooking a practice court inside Auburn Arena, the 57-year-old coach was relaxed. For the first time in weeks, he was going to make it home in time to have dinner with his wife. But before that, he was glad to talk about the state of Auburn basketball.
Last season’s team wasn’t easy to manage. Pearl pointed out that Auburn was the only program in the country with four freshmen leading the team in scoring. The Tigers won 18 games, falling short of postseason play. Pearl said the Tigers didn’t always defend and rebound, they didn’t make their free throws, and “sometimes we played selfish.”
Now those freshmen are sophomores, the sophomores are juniors, and so on.
Now they’re doing all the little things, and Pearl sees a team that has bought in, a team that trusts and respects one another.
“You don’t mind sharing the ball,” he said. “You don’t mind sharing minutes. You don’t mind taking a little less to get a little more.”
Hearing Pearl gush about this team — and make no mistake, he’s gushing when he talks about players such as forward Desean Murraywho he says exemplifies the team’s selfless identity — paints a rosy picture of basketball on The Plains.
“This is an undersized, very tough, hard-playing group that’s achieving at a very high level,” he says. “I won’t say overachieving. They’re achieving at a very high level.”
Pearl hugs the line between his own positivity (achieving at a high level) and the external narrative (overachieving) during the course of a roughly 20-minute conversation. He’s aware that no one expected Auburn to be in this position, and with good reason.
The cloud of the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption still lingers around Auburn, having already taken assistant coach Chuck Person, a pair of support staffers and two of the team’s most talented players, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley.
“I’m responsible, ultimately,” Pearl said. “When there are negative things going on in our program, I’m responsible for that. And I didn’t come here to bring pain. I came here to bring competitiveness, credibility and maybe excellence. And we’re providing that. That’s the story.”
Maybe so. But Pearl understands that the rest is all but impossible to ignore. Like that limp of his, there are subtle reminders of the quandary in which the program finds itself, such as Wiley’s presence on the scout team rather than in the starting five.
Last week, the NCAA ruled that Wiley wouldn’t be eligible to play this season. Pearl says he’s still holding on to hope of an appeal, and he hasn’t given up on Purifoy, either, whose eligibility remains in limbo.
“Our hearts are broken for them,” Pearl said.
But he doesn’t want sympathy right now. Would they be a better team with Purifoy and Wiley? “We would,” he said, while insisting that he isn’t focused on that.
“Two man down, not just man down,” he says. “It forced everybody to pick it up.”
Can they keep it up?
On the eve of rivalry week, Pearl seemed keenly aware of his team’s slim margin for error. He shouted at one of his assistant coaches down the hall for some numbers.
Pearl raised his eyebrows. This two-game stretch could expose his squad as a paper Tiger or signal that despite everything going on, this team could be in line for a good seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We have 13 more regular-season games,” he said. “We could win them all. We could lose them all.”
Auburn will do neither.
On Wednesday, the Tigers shot under 40 percent from the field in a 76-71 loss at Alabama that featured eight lead changes. A particularly solid piece of trolling took place during an early TV timeout, when an Alabama fan brought onto the court to shoot for a prize just happened to be wearing a dark jacket with FBI spelled out in big yellow letters across the back.
“We didn’t have a lot of energy, and I’m not really sure why,” Pearl said. “The grind of the season maybe.”
Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. A troubling pattern of falling behind early has emerged. Auburn had won four of five previous games in which it trailed by double figures, but not in Tuscaloosa, where it fell to 9-49 all time.
But on Saturday against Georgia, the magic returned. After trailing the Bulldogs by 14 points at halftime, Auburn came storming back. An 18-2 run was punctuated by a steal and a dunk by sophomore Mustapha Heron to take the lead with 13:49 remaining.
Heron and junior Bryce Brown combined for 42 points, and the Tigers produced a season-high 27 points off turnovers.
On the bench, freshman Davion Mitchell wore a navy blue T-shirt with “4-14” written across the chest. It’s a reminder, worn on a rotating basis, of one writer’s prediction for Auburn’s record in SEC play this season. In fact, the preseason polls had the Tigers finishing ninth in the league.
Instead, Auburn beat Georgia 79-65 and improved to 5-1 in conference and 17-2 overall. The Tigers currently sit second in the SEC standings, just half a game behind Florida.
“This team has character,” Pearl told reporters after another comeback win. “You can’t sit back and wait for teams to fail. You have got to force the issue. You have to make plays offensively and defensively, and that’s what this team is doing.”
Asked how Auburn has been able to dig itself out of so many early holes, Brown pointed to experience, among other things.
“Another reason is we are just staying together and fighting through adversity,” he said. “If we continue to fight through adversity and stay together, we can overcome anything.”
It probably isn’t a recipe worth following — spotting teams double-digit leads time and time again — but it’s working. This team, short-handed and embattled as it is, is finding a way to get the job done.
You can’t overstate the job Pearl has done in getting Auburn to this point, but it’s also impossible to overlook how the program got into this position in the first place.
Just one day before beating Georgia, Auburn introduced its new athletic director, Allen Greenewho was promptly asked about the situation with the basketball team and the ongoing investigation. Once again, Auburn president Steven Leath insinuated that Pearl was being less than forthcoming with the school’s internal investigation. ESPN reported in November that Pearl’s refusal to cooperate with Auburn’s internal investigation into his program could put his job in jeopardy.
“Bruce and his staff are doing a great job on the court,” Leath said last week, according to AL.com. “Clearly, Bruce knows that my expectation is that sooner or later he’s going to have to come in and talk to me and others on campus about what’s going on in the program, and we’re moving toward a solution on that, but that is an expectation.”
Prior to Leath’s comments, Pearl was asked about his repeated refusal to comment on the allegations levied against his program in the FBI complaint.
“You have limitations, and yet I will never be false or misleading,” Pearl said. “There are a lot of things I can’t say and a lot I don’t know. In fact, a lot of the things in the investigation I still don’t know about.”
Instead, he compartmentalizes. He repeats the mantra “control what you can control” and goes to work.
“I recognize that we’re facing tremendous adversity,” he said. “Our staff needs me more than ever. I need them. The players need me more than ever. So we’re really just trying to be at our best when things are down.”
So far, it has gone better than anyone could have expected.
The Tigers are small, and they’re far from perfect, but they’re finding a way to win more games than many would have expected, given the circumstances. After splitting rivalry week against Alabama and Georgia, Auburn appears to be here to stay.
Whether they’re achieving at a high level or overachieving, Pearl & Co. are thriving under pressure.