Bruce Pearl has seen both sides of Auburn basketball's recent success.
On The Plains, in and around campus, the 57-year-old head coach has watched the attitude of fans toward his team turn in his short career as a Tiger. Pearl sees happy, smiling faces "coming out of church, or walking in and out of a store."
In the locker room, it's been a different story.
His Tigers shocked No. 23 Tennessee on the road. They fed on a ravenous crowd and start-to-finish energy to blow No. 22 Arkansas out of the water.
Six players scored in double figures as Auburn overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to blast Ole Miss, 85-70, leading to the team's first 3-0 start in the conference since 2003.
The hype and craze surrounding Auburn basketball has swelled to such a point where the team will take two pep buses to Starkville, Mississippi for a showdown with the Bulldogs this Saturday.
Pearl said he's always admired the way that SEC fans travel with their teams in the fall.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
"It just makes each environment very bowl-like, very tournament-like," Pearl said. "Like the NCAA Tournament, it's not the place is full and we've got 20 people sitting behind our bench, maybe, and that's it. That doesn't make for as competitive an environment."
Auburn will receive its long-awaited support away from home. Fans will arrive in droves for the rest of the season to cheer on their ranked Tigers.
However, where it all starts, in the locker room with a blue and orange "AU" on the carpet, it's been business as usual.
"I don’t notice a lot of difference in my team and in my locker room, interestingly," Pearl said. "They’re pretty much the same."
The focus that Auburn's deep roster has been fueled will be challenged this weekend in what Pearl called "a really good opportunity" for Auburn to prove its worth in a deep Southeastern Conference.
The play of Malik Dunbar (14) has been one of the many factors leading to Auburn's 15-1 start - FILE PHOTO
"The quality of the league from top to bottom is really good," Pearl said. "I told the team this morning that the best team in the league may not win the league. It's going to be the team that is able to manage to get ready for everybody and not have a letdown. That's hard to do in an 18-game schedule, but it's going to be a grind."
The Bulldogs (13-3, 1-2 SEC) are a tough out at their home arena. In Starkville, Mississippi State has 12 wins, which leads D-I NCAA basketball.
State prides itself on making teams earn their points away from the foul line, an area of the floor where Auburn just went 29-of-37 against the Bulldogs' cross-state rivals on Wednesday.
Junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who led Mississippi State to a 64-point second half performance at Auburn last season, has a target on his back as an offensive juggernaut. The team is 13-2 when Weatherspoon gets his and scores 20 or more.
"We're going to have to work on some defensive adjustments this time to do a better job of guarding them," Pearl said.
A 4-0 start in league play would be a stepping stone in Pearl's story of redemption, and it would further the motivation from the team's recent "4-14" shirts. CBS Sports slated the Tigers to finish with only a quartet of victories in the preseason.
Over a week into 2018, and the FBI-probed Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have yet to see on-the-court action. Per Pearl, the duo will remain with the team for the remainder of the season until their fates are determined.
Pearl called a return for his players "a possibility."
"Our thing with those guys is really just the pain that they themselves aren’t able to be out there," Pearl said. "Our hearts and minds are more broken for Austin and for Danjel that part of their joy — they’re not able to play, at least at this point."
Not many thought the Tigers would be in this position, with the nation's second-longest winning streak a few games into conference play. Even fewer would have predicted it without Wiley and Purifoy.
Unknowingly, Pearl prepared his team for the adversity months ago.
"I think more getting an opportunity to go this summer to Italy and begin the process of playing together, trusting, respecting enjoying each other had a lot more to do than simply the adversity," Peal said. "The adversity is the reality. The reality is we got a lot smaller real quick and we had to overcome that."
Through the investigations, looping back around to a suddenly rabid fanbase, the Tigers have grown up before a proud coach's eyes.
"Knowing everybody is working hard and that you trust one another and respect one another, when you’re happy for another man’s success as much as your own, that’s when you have chemistry," Pearl said. "That’s when you have the buy-in, and that’s where this team is right now. Do you maintain that throughout the season? Certainly losing challenges that. Winning cures everything."
Auburn will go for its 14th win in a row in Starkville. Tip time is set for 2:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman