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Wrapping up the season with Bruce Pearl: Discussing the Yale loss, praising a championship season and MUCH more

Justin Hokansonby:Justin Hokanson03/28/24


AUBURN — Auburn head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl met with the media on Thursday to recap the Tigers’ season following a disappointing loss to Yale in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash.

It was a season that saw Auburn win 27 games (fourth most in program history), win a SEC Tournament championship (the second under Pearl and fourth overall championship in the last seven seasons), produce the third All-American during the Pearl era in Johni Broome (also earned All-SEC first team), and it’s a season that will see Auburn go from unranked to start the season and picked to finish sixth in the league, to likely finishing inside the Top 15-20 in the AP poll and finishing tied for second in the league with Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Disappointing end to the season? Absolutely, as Pearl talks about below. Disappointing season as a whole? It’s hard to say that after everything this team accomplished and surpassing many outside expectations.

In the spirit of transparency, here’s everything Pearl said during his Q&A:

Pearl started with some opening comments. He talks about the Yale loss, Chad Baker-Mazara’s incident, being proud of this team and much more. Pearl was very animated, by the way, in defending his players and his team.

“I’d rather be doing some kind of press conference prior to playing UConn in Boston, but it didn’t work out that way. We feel the sting and pain of not performing well enough in the postseason to advance, but we know that 67 teams are going to lose before they want to. I’ve been on the other side of that upset and that’s what March Madness is all about. In spite of losing Chad Baker-Mazara to a Flagrant 2 three minutes into the game, when you’re up 10 with seven to go, we’re in a pretty good spot.

“We turned the ball over on a number of occasions and most of the stuff we turned it over on, you would take. We got the ball to Johni really tight and he got stripped. Jaylin Williams in a duck-in, dribbled off his foot. We’ve sen him make that play a million times. Denver came off a double stagger, got his jersey held and he got fouled and they didn’t call it, and we turn it over. Tre turns it over going back door to KD…we just didn’t execute. KD got a rebound and pushed the break and turned the ball over, not being the point guard and we’ve seen it before. Some of the stuff that reared it’s ugly head appeared over time that just, the perfect storm. On the other end, they either got fouled or scored every time.

“It was very difficult. The fact that we could lose to Yale, the fact that we did lose to Yale — one of the things I want to be careful about is by providing too many excuses, I take away from what coach said was the greatest win in Yale basketball history. I believe him. To provide too many excuses takes away from the fact that they made plays and had a historic upset.”

More on Baker-Mazara’s Flagrant 2 foul…

“I thought the Flagrant 2 could have been a Flagrant 1 and I don’t think a lot of people would have commented on it. Could it have been a Flagrant 2? Yes, it could have been, but three minutes into the game when there wasn’t anything we’re having problems on the floor with temperatures rising — I knew right there we were in trouble. They had one great defender and we thought they’d put that defender on Chad, therefore our point guards would have the freedom to do more things When we lost Chad and they had their best defender on our point guard, the only play-making guard I had left was Denver. And he did a great job, Denver did a phenomenal job. There’s a reason why Chad Baker was All-SEC tournament team, he was one of the best players in the postseason in the SEC.

“I thought the fact that it was retaliatory, it was five seconds earlier, Chad Baker got hit in the throat on a flagrant play that was missed, should have been taken into consideration. You work all year long to put yourself in position and on a judgment call, I thought it was too excessive. At the same time, on the other side of the coin, we’re handling that with total accountability. Chad should have never done it. He should have walked away. There were several times during the course of the season where he made the same mistake. What a difficult way to learn from that mistake. At the same time, I’d also like to remind our fans, and anybody listening, that Chad owned up to that mistake and he’s apologized for that mistake. He’s taken responsibility and although the consequences, he feels really bad and he’s struggling with that right now.

“I’m going to tell the Auburn family, while I know you are disappointed, if somebody was messing with your son, you’d stand up for your son wouldn’t you? Stop messing with my son. Stop it. He apologized, he made a mistake, I’m calling you out. I’m not having it. For those on social media who want to continue, unfollow those people. Stop it.”

More on Auburn fan expectations and how they’ve risen over the last decade…

“Part of it what happens is, we get so excited as fans — this was a team that we enjoyed watching as much as anybody. It was a really fun team to watch. This was a team that wasn’t a preseason Top 25 team. Iowa State and Auburn were the only two teams that got into the Top 10 that weren’t picked in the Top 10 or Top 25. Which tells you this team worked really hard. The fact that we could lose to Yale speaks volumes about the 27 games we did win.”

“This team beat the teams they were supposed to beat almost every night. For that, I compliment them and I’m proud of them. They prepared, they trained, and they played well together. They were unselfish, so it was a great season. They won a championship. The fourth different team in seven years to win a championship in the SEC. SEC championships matter. They matter to me and they matter to our fans, and they matter to the Auburn family. At the end of the day, if that’s not good enough, I don’t know what is. Our guys are a little sensitive to it.

“Here’s the last thing. I’m not asking anybody to kiss my ass. I’m not. You want to write good things or say good thoughts, I hope I’ll work really hard to earn those things. At some point, I’ll give you reason to criticize. You want to criticize the Yale game? Let’s tear it up. Let’s ask questions about the Yale game and I’ll try and explain why we lost that lead. Have at it. This was a great team at Auburn and I’m very proud of them.”

“I think what happens is people get disappointed because their expectations change and they should change. The expectations for Auburn basketball should be way higher than they were 10 years ago.”

Pearl said the new world of college basketball, and college athletics, is a wild one.

“There’s no advantage to being 63 years old and having done this since 1968. We got beat and we got home Saturday morning at 4:30 in the morning. Our staff and I were in the office at 10 and I had to set an alarm to get there at 10. We worked Saturday and Sunday, evaluating what’s in the portal or what’s coming in the portal, our own team, and would you be shocked to know I’ve been on the road recruiting Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and just got back late last night, and I’m leaving in about an hour. It’s changed.

“We’re not in control of everything. The combination of NIL, the transfer portal and automatic eligibility right away, it’s uncharted waters for all of us. A NIL agent could call any player on my roster and offer them some sort of NIL deal somewhere else and it’s no longer tampering. I can tell you we’re not going to do that. Just because it’s legal, we’re not going to do that. I’ll fire a guy that tries to do it, it’s just not what I believe in. We don’t have to do it that way.”

Pearl and his staff met with players upon their return. Those meetings continue.

“We met with almost all the players and gave them the opportunity to meet, see where they are at. I feel really good about our meetings.

“I want to congratulate KD on three years on being in the NCAA Tournament, of regular season championship, tournament championship, pretty good three-year run. What I anticipated in my meetings with KD, our roster int he backcourt — it’s going to be a little bit more of the same for KD. Coming off the bench, not quite being, play as freely as he’d like to play. There are only so many minutes and so many opportunities. With the chance of having a lot of other guys back that are really good, we talked about the fact that would the joy of the game be there perhaps somewhere else and had more of an opportunity to do more of what KD does? KD Johnson will return to Auburn to receive his degree when the time comes. He’s close to his degree — but he really wants to be a unit short, he wants an Auburn degree and so does his family. When he’s done playing, we’re going to make that happen.”

Auburn’s front line was fantastic this season. Pearl thinks it can be good again next season, depending on some decisions.

“We had between Dylan Cardwell and Johni Broome, and Jaylin Williams and Chaney Johnson, those four guys gave us as good a front line as we’d play against. We pounded the ball to those guys and they did inside-out things. With all four of those guys — you talk about progress and player development. Johni Broome starts at Morehead State, goes there as a freshman, no Power Five offers, and he goes down there is the player of the year down there. He has two great years, then he transfers to Auburn. Will his game translate? All he does is be all-conference in the SEC first year. Then he comes back and really wanted to be an All-American really badly. The combination of his efficiencies — he improved from two, from three, from the foul line, he improved his assist-to-turnover ratio, as a result of his improvement and us finishing the season inside the Top 10, he’s one of the guys that wasn’t a preseason All-American but was at the end of the year. Progress, work…with a chip on his shoulder. I’m very proud of Johni.

“Dylan, if he played more, either him or Johni could have been defensive player of the year. When Jaylin gets hurt, and Chaney’s role changes, we go to Georgia and he’s lights out and plays really well the rest of the season. Those four guys had the advantage on the front line almost every night. And with the exception of Jaylin Williams who was a Top 75 player, Dylan Cardwell wasn’t, Chaney Johnson wasn’t, Johni Broome wasn’t — no McDonald’s All-Americans, not even Burger King. As a coach and teacher and somebody that wants to talk about Auburn, that’s to me, those guys have worked really hard and been loyal to Auburn. We’ll see what comes back there, I don’t know. We’d love to have them all back. That still has to work itself out.”

Will Johni Broome return? We’ve outlined that situation on The Corner, but here’s what Pearl had to say about it:

“I want to let the guys make these decisions when they are there families are comfortable. The sooner they make them, the better. For both, I think them and the program moving forward.

“Sure, absolutely. One of his options is to come back. You have to weigh what the NIL could be versus a two-way contract or second round or Europe, things like that. That’s something his family is in the process of doing right now.”

We talked about on The Corner, signee Tahaad Pettiford will play the shooting guard. Pearl confirmed that on Thursday and talked more about Pettiford and his fit.

“Tahaad isn’t a point guard. He’s got the size of a point guard, but everybody assumes he’s going to come be our point guard, but he’s not. Tahaad is a scorer. He is an incredible athlete. He can make plays on both ends of the floor. He’s going to be one of the fastest, quickest, most explosive guards I’ve ever had. Early in his career, I’m going to play him off the ball and let him do what he does, get buckets. Get buckets. That may help you understand why the roster is moved where it’s moved.”

Pearl ended by talking about why players love Auburn:

“One great thing about being at Auburn: guys like it here. They appreciate the opportunity to play here, they love their school, they love The Jungle, they love and appreciate the support they get. In this crazy world of NIL and portal, we have a huge advantage at Auburn. The kids want to stay and they don’t want to stay just because of me. They want to stay here because they love Auburn and the Auburn family. That’s facts.”

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