After finishing above .500 just once in his first three seasons as head coach, Bruce Pearl completely changed the culture of Auburn basketball in 2017-18, and is an easy choice for Coach of the Year.
Just a few months after the university offered fans refunds on season tickets following the FBI scandal, basketball games became the hottest ticket in town. By the end of the season, students were waiting in line for hours to get inside Auburn Arena, and they filled the jungle and then some.
Auburn entered the season as a team with potential, but expectations were lowered significantly when key players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were suspended for the season. An exhibition loss to Division II Barry University looked like a sign of things to come, but instead it sparked a resilience that motivated the Tigers for the rest of the year.
That resilience led to several electrifying second half comebacks, Auburn’s first SEC regular season championship since 1999, and culminated in the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years. A blowout loss to Clemson in the second round of the Big Dance did not take away from the Tigers’ dream season.
“This doesn’t take anything away,” Pearl said after the Clemson loss. “As of Sunday afternoon there were twenty-something teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament and Auburn was one of them. This is where we want our basketball program. I have no seniors. We’re the second-youngest team in the SEC behind Kentucky. I feel good about the foundation of our program, and these kids have been amazing us all season long.”
Auburn was far from the most talented team in the conference—the Tigers were picked to finish 4-14 in the SEC—but Pearl continued to get the most out of his team night after night.
Bryce Brown transformed from a solid three-point shooter to one of the most complete players in the SEC, Anfernee McLemore went from role player to one of the league’s best defenders, and DeSean Murray used every inch of his 6’3” frame to become a force on the glass.
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Pearl will need to replace some talent going into next season, as leading scorer Mustapha Heron and second team All-SEC point guard Jared Harper have both declared for the NBA Draft. But with Purifoy and most players from last year’s squad returning, the future is bright for Auburn basketball.
- Greg Williams (Equestrian)
- Gus Malzahn (Football)
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