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Unranked to championship: Auburn continues trend of exceeding expectations under Bruce Pearl

Justin Hokansonby:Justin Hokanson03/19/24


AUBURN — Bruce Pearl said it during the summer, he said it when practice started in the fall, and he said it as Auburn began trekking through their schedule: “I thought this was a good team with a chance to be very good.”

Turns out, “very good” was an understatement.

“This is a great team. This team’s been great. You can’t win a championship without being great. They are already great. They don’t have to anything else to be great. Nothing,” Pearl said on Tuesday as his team departed for Spokane, Washington to face 13-seed Yale in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season’s results have shined a light on a trend under Pearl: More times than not under Pearl, Auburn is going to surprise you.

The Tigers head into the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 7 in the AP poll after being unranked in the preseason. There are only six teams in college basketball that started the season unranked and are currently ranked heading into the Big Dance. Iowa State, Utah State, Texas Tech, BYU and Washington State join Auburn as preseason unranked teams now ranked.

And of those six, only two have gone from unranked to ranked inside the top 10 heading into the tournament: Iowa State at No. 4 and Auburn.

“We talked about it being a team that would shoot it better than a year before. We talked about whether they would defend and be physical enough. We were right about the shooting and we became a better defensive team and we became physical enough to compete,” Pearl said.

“I think this team made a lot of progress. This coaching staff did an outstanding job with player development and they did a great job all year long of being unselfish and all being patient, and all accepting less individually so we as a team could achieve more.”

Mar 17, 2024; Nashville, TN, USA; The Auburn Tigers celebrate with head coach Bruce Pearl after defeating the Florida Gators in the SEC Tournament championship game at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For the fifth time in the last seven seasons, the Tigers have exceeded outside expectations under Pearl.

In 2017-18, the Tigers were unranked in the preseason AP poll and predicted to finish 4-14 in the SEC. Instead, they finished nine games better than that, going 13-5 and winning the SEC regular season championship. That team reached as high as No. 8 and finished No. 19 in the AP poll. It was Pearl’s first championship at Auburn and the program’s first championship since the 1998-99 team.

Expectations exceeded and set the stage for more championships to come.

In 2018-19, the Tigers were ranked No. 11 preseason and predicted to finish third in the league. They finished fifth at 11-7, but reached as high as No. 7 in the AP poll, won the SEC Tournament championship (which wasn’t expected) and made the Final Four (which certainly wasn’t expected) running through Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the process. Auburn was a double-dribble away from playing for the national championship.

Historic season. That team surpassed all reasonable expectations and then some.

In 2019-20, the Tigers were ranked No. 24 preseason and picked to finish fourth in the league. Instead, they finished second and earned the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament before the postseason was cancelled due to Covid. That team reached as high as No. 4 in the AP poll and finished No. 20.

Expectations exceeded and were poised for a run in March, it seemed.

In 2020-21, Auburn was picked to finish seventh in the league. They finished 10th, going 7-11 and 13-14 overall with one of the youngest teams in college basketball. That group also played with no postseason expectations or anticipation due a self-imposed postseason ban. In addition, the Tigers were without McDonald’s All-American point guard Sharife Cooper for the first 11 games of the season and the first three games of league play due to the NCAA holding the freshman phenom out. Without Cooper, Auburn went 6-5 overall and 0-3 in league games. Cooper then played the next 12 games, as Auburn went 5-7 overall and 5-6 in league play. Cooper missed the final four games of the season due to injury, as the Tigers finished 2-2 down the stretch. That’s 2-5 in SEC games without Cooper and 5-6 in league games with him.

Preseason predictions versus postseason finish aside, it’s hard to argue Auburn underachieved or overachieved factoring in Cooper’s absence, lack of postseason anticipation and dealing with the youngest team in college basketball. That season was just a mess for a variety of reasons.

In 2021-22, the Tigers were ranked No. 22 preseason and picked to finish fifth in the league. Instead, Auburn won the regular season championship going 15-3, topping Tennessee and Kentucky at 14-4 in league play, and Arkansas at 13-5. That team produced the school’s first No. 1 ranking in the AP poll and finished No. 8 in the final poll after producing two All-Americans in Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. To make the season more impressive, that group welcomed in three more transfers Wendell Green, Zep Jasper and KD Johnson, in addition to Kessler, and meshed them all together to win a championship.

Another championship as the underdog and history made in the AP poll. Expectations exceeded.

Auburn Tigers forward Jabari Smith (10) celebrates with his team as Auburn Tigers men’s basketball celebrates the regular season SEC championship at Neville Arena in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Auburn Tigers defeated South Carolina Gamecocks 82-71.

In 2022-23, Auburn was preseason No. 15 in the AP poll and picked to finish fourth in the league. The Tigers finished seventh in the league at 10-8 and 21-13 overall. Following a first-round NCAA Tournament win against Iowa, the Tigers lost in the second round to No. 1 seed Houston. Auburn finished unranked. It’s the first and only season so far under Pearl where Auburn was ranked preseason and finished unranked.

For the first time under Pearl, an Auburn team underachieved based on preseason expectations.

Then came the 2023-24 season, where Auburn was unranked preseason and picked to finish sixth in the league. The Tigers are currently ranked the highest they’ve been all season at No. 7 in the AP poll, will certainly finish ranked, and finished second in the league, just one game behind regular season champion Tennessee. Then, the Tigers won the SEC Tournament championship, beating three NCAA Tournament teams do it. That hasn’t happened since Florida did it in 2005. Auburn was also preseason No. 15 in the KenPom ratings and are currently No. 4 heading into the tournament.

Once again, Auburn exceeds expectations during a season where the league places eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, and this squad is still going.

Can this Auburn team achieve more? According to ESPN Bet, the Tigers have the sixth-best odds to win the NCAA Tournament. Per Torvik (T-Rank) ratings, Auburn is the second-best team in college basketball during the month of March so far, bettered (barely) by only UConn.

“As we move forward, we put ourselves in position, have an opportunity, so we truly need to keep doing what we’re doing,” Pearl said. “Keep defending, keep doing a good job in rebounding — we have to continue doing a good job of that, and continue to be unselfish and make shots.”

We’ll see what happens. As Pearl said, this team is already earned “great” status and they have a championship trophy to prove it.

It all makes sense, really. Pearl said recently he enjoys the regular season because he likes the “grind.” He said he doesn’t allow his teams to become complacent because his personality won’t allow it. And based on recent results, this won’t be the last Pearl-coached team at Auburn to prove doubters wrong and make noise by the time March rolls around.

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