Minneapolis, MN (EETV)- “And Auburn is heading to the championship game!” Remember when that happened for Auburn basketball? Yea, neither do I. That’s because it has never happened before nor has the thought of even making it to the final four has ever popped into your head.
In order for us to see why the hiring of Bruce Pearl is the best thing to ever happen to the Auburn basketball program, there must be a brief history lesson of how Auburn was fortunate enough to be in this situation.
Charles Barkley and Chuck Person were the closest to the thought of winning a championship, but Charles never made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
After Barkley left Auburn to become the No. 5 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, Person and Chris Morris, who both went on to be the No. 4 picks in the 1986 and 1988 NBA Draft respectively, led the 8th seeded Tigers to the Elite Eight who would fall to the winners of the 1986 NCAA Tournament, the Louisville Cardinals which featured four future NBA players on that roster.
During Sonny Smith’s coaching tenure at Auburn, 1978-1989, the most wins he ever had in a season was 22. With the talent he had at his disposal, one would think that Auburn should have competed for titles year after year, especially while the three aforementioned players above were on the court.
I am not calling Smith a bad coach by any means, in fact he has gone farther in the NCAA tournament than Cliff Ellis, the second-best coach in Auburn history in my eyes.
Speaking of Cliff, he coached Auburn to its first and only No. 1 seed in the 1998 season. With a 29-4 record, the Tigers were upset in the Sweet 16 by Ohio State. The Tigers made it back to the Big Dance the next season, and after the team lost in the Sweet 16 in the 2002 season, you could say the basketball program fell of the metaphorical “cliff.”
The next 14 years of Auburn basketball was the equivalent to posting a selfie and getting no likes. Zero NCAA Tournament appearances, a 159-182 record (46 percent winning percentage) and a laughing stock across the SEC and the entire country.
Then in 2015, the basketball culture at Auburn would change for the better with the hiring of Bruce Pearl. He was already under scrutiny for the barbecue he threw for recruits in 2008 in which he “knowingly violated NCAA rules” according to former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. He has moved passed that and has made his blessings with the NCAA.
There were a few factors that helped changed the culture at Auburn. Number one was recruiting. In 2015, Bruce Pearl’s first recruiting class was 16th in the nation according to 247sports. This class included Horace Spencer, Danjel Purifoy and Bryce Brown.
The next year’s class was 12th in nation and comprised of 5-star recruit Mustapha Heron (who had to transfer because of family health related issues), Austin Wiley, Jared Harper and Anfernee McLemore. And finally, in 2017, Auburn signed Chuma Okeke and Malik Dunbar to round out this season starting five.
Bruce also changed the style of play. Auburn runs a show up and down the court, forcing turnovers at a high rate and making more three-pointers than any other team in the country. In fact, Auburn has made 445 threes this season and no other team has hit the 400 mark in made three pointers. There is no doubt that Bruce has made Auburn one of the, if not the most, fun teams to watch in the entire country.
Bruce makes his players believe they can win against any team and that is clearly evident given the fact that during this incredible tournament run, Auburn has defeated the top three winningest programs in college basketball history in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Only the 1997 Arizona Wildcats, who went on to win the tournament, completed such a feat with all three those teams being No. 1 seeds. Auburn is in the Final Four for the first time in school history after beating Kentucky, and after the game, even Sir Charles Barkley had to admit that this was “the greatest day in Auburn basketball history.”