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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Sunday / January 20.
  • Bruce Pearl Wins at Tennessee, Officially Has the Ball Rolling at Auburn

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    Many of Bruce Pearl’s best coaching memories have come at Thompson Boiling Arena.

    His latest may go down as the sweetest one yet.

    Pearl, of course, called Thompson Boiling Arena home for the six seasons he was the head coach at Tennessee. After leading the Volunteers to a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament in 2010-11, he was fired due to off-the-court transgressions, which eventually led to the NCAA nailing him with a three-year show-cause penalty.

    Pearl took those three years off from the sidelines only to resurface close by, at Auburn. It was considered quite the rebuilding task, albeit in the SEC, for a program that last went dancing in 2002-03.

    His first three seasons at Auburn were quite uneventful. The Tigers went a combined 44-54, including a 16-38 mark in conference play, failing to even qualify for the NIT.

    Pearl has got it going on in his fourth year at Auburn, however. The Tigers waltzed into No. 23 Tennesee on Tuesday and outhustled, outrebounded, and thoroughly outplayed a more experienced, bigger, and more wholesome Tennesee squad, 94-84, at their coach’s old stomping grounds.

    It was Auburn’s first win in Knoxville in nearly 20 years, since January 7, 1998. At 13-1, the Tigers have reeled off eleven straight wins and are off to their best start since the 1999-2000 campaign, when they started out 16-1.

    Another sign of the times: Tuesday represented Auburn’s first road win over a ranked opponent since February 24, 2007, at Alabama.

    Jared Harper and Bryce Brown tallied 18 points apiece to lead the way versus Tennessee. Mustapha Heron added 16 points, and top-50 freshman Chuma Okeke threw in 11 points of his own, making 3-of-4 three-pointers.

    None of those individual performances were as impressive as Auburn’s collective stats, however. The Tigers overcame their second-worst effective field goal percentage of the season (46.6%) and a 29% (9-of-31) display from behind the arc by holding the edge in all other facets of the game.

    Auburn outscored Tennesee 38-28 in the paint, 17-9 in points off turnovers, and 15-7 in transition. Seemingly every 50-50 ball was corralled by the Tigers.

    If Auburn’s brand of basketball under Pearl’s tutelage looks familiar, that’s probably by design.

    “This Auburn team reminds me of Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee teams,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg noted afterward on-air. “Undersized, they speed you up, they turn you over, they attack the glass.”

    The revival of Auburn hoops is all the more remarkable when factoring in who the Tigers don’t have. That would be sophomores Danjel Purifoy (11.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG in 2016-17) and Austin Wiley (8.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG in 2016-17)—both of whom remain sidelined in connection to the ongoing FBI investigation into the corruption of college basketball—as well as the man who recruited them, former associate head coach Chuck Person, who was arrested and indicted for accepted roughly $91,500 in bribes during a ten-month period.

    In short, Pearl is without the services of two of his top players from a year ago in addition to his former right-hand man. Then again, if there’s any coach to withstand off-the-court distractions and keep the focus on his on-the-court product, it’s Pearl.

    Whether you like it or not, college basketball is better when Pearl is on the sidelines. He finally has the ball rolling and is creating a culture at Auburn. With that, plus the Tigers not employing a single senior in their rotation, it appears neither Pearl nor Auburn are going away anytime soon.


    A quick thought on Tennessee: Just how different would our perception of them be had they not squandered significant leads in all four of their losses this season? A quick recap of the snakebitten Volunteers’ defeats:

    • November 23: Led Villanova by as many as 15 late in the first half before losing by 9 in the Bahamas
    • December 17: Up 3 against UNC with a minute to go before losing by 5 at home
    • Saturday: Held 9-point lead at Arkansas with 3:53 remaining before losing in overtime
    • Tuesday: Raced out to 23-9 lead at home against Auburn before losing by 10
    There’s still plenty to like about this Tennesee team. Grant Williams (22 points, 8 rebounds on Tuesday) is an All-SEC performer. Admiral Schofield is a potent second option. They have a Top-20 defense according to KenPom. That win over Purdue on a neutral gains traction by the day.

    But right now, Tennessee’s biggest enemy is itself. Rick Barnes’ men have to learn how to play with the lead and improve upon closing games if they wish to be serious players in a quietly stacked SEC this season. Because an 0-2 start in league play and a date with Kentucky on Saturday is the furthest thing from what the doctor ordered.

    Photo: @AuburnMBB

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