Bruce Pearl's comments at media availability on Tuesday, ahead of the Tigers' trip to Kansas City for the Sweet 16.
So, we, uhh, we’re very, uhh — We’re very excited to still be working, and I guess working coaching basketball because, had we not advanced, we’d be shifting gears to recruiting and scheduling and getting the guys academically finishing up and start talking about who’s going in the draft and all that stuff — but that gets put off for another week or two, hopefully. Anyway, we’re very excited about still being alive in this tournament. Very grateful for the incredible response that we’ve felt from our Auburn family and faithful. It’s just been wonderful. It means a lot to us because it means so much to everybody else.
Just a quick recap: I think that we knew, going in, we had a tough draw in that first game. We were the only 5 to survive the first round. We knew New Mexico State was going to be a really, really good team, and they were. We may not have played our best, but they had a lot to do with it. And, certainly, we’re fortunate to be able to survive and advance because we didn’t close the game well at all. We made a lot of mistakes and it could’ve cost us. We were tired. After four games in Nashville, the travel, the time change, the altitude, the early morning start — we were tired. It was not going to be an excuse had we lost, but it would’ve been a factor.
Then, it was interesting, everybody talked about the quick turnaround playing Saturday night, and it felt like an eternity from when we played New Mexico State on Thursday morning. And our kids were fresh, with those two days off, or a day and a half off, and we obviously looked like it. We played great basketball in the first half against Kansas. And it was fun. Offensively in the second half, we continued to attack and continued to score, but our defense was not very good. Our second-half defense was not good in Utah in both games, and that’s going to have to change. If we could give up 98 points in the second half against New Mexico State and Kansas, the North Carolina can score 70.
Carolina is—They’ve been the No. 1 seed throughout the last four years and eight out of Roy’s 16 years at North Carolina. So they’re on a great run right now. They’ve been in the Final Four more than any other program. They’ve been to the Elite Eight, I believe, 28 times. For us, as our kids have been focused on trying to make history — and you hear that from their mouths, not just mine — what a better way of, or a better opportunity to try to make history, than to have to go through Kansas and then have to go through North Carolina, in Kansas, which is obviously a historic place for the NCAA Tournament and the game of basketball, because of Dr. Neysmith being out there at Kansas after he left Springfield College. So there’s a lot of history there.
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That all said, North Carolina might be the best team left in the field. They’re plus-10.5 rebound margin. We’re about minus-3.5 rebound margin, for a difference of 14. Rebounding has been a problem for us all year—or it’s at least been a challenge. We are one of the smallest teams in the SEC going against one of the biggest teams in the country that plays fast. I think there are a lot of pundits that are excited about the game because you’ve got the two highest scoring teams in the tournament playing each other for the chance to go to the Elite Eight.
When I was on with Paul Finebaum last night, I used the terminology that we're not afraid to run with North Carolina. It wasn't a challenge or trying to say we're not afraid of North Carolina. We've got a good, healthy fear and respect of North Carolina. It's just that's how we play too. For us to not try to play fast would go against how we play best also. Even though historically, the way to beat Carolina is to get them in a half-court game and not let them beat you in transition. That's going to be difficult to do because of the way we like to play.
The other challenging thing is they're No. 2 in the country in assists, almost 19 assists a game. They do a phenomenal job of penetrating and kicking to the open man. They do a great job of their inside offense. A lot of those assists come from post feeds. They do a good job of getting the ball inside. That's another one of our challenges. So we'll have to play our best basketball.
The last thing I'll say before I take questions will be: North Carolina will not take us lightly, or won't be surprised by our pace or our abilities. They've got a first half to show them where we played about as good of basketball as we possibly can against Kansas. North Carolina lost to Tennessee earlier this season, so obviously the Carolina kids have respect for Tennessee's program. We were able to beat Tennessee twice, so I'm sure we're going to get hit in the mouth by Carolina from the jump.
NORTH CAROLINA'S GUARDS VS. AUBURN'S GUARDS
It's interesting. When we put Coby White's information on the board yesterday with the team. Jared said, 'Is he 6-5?' I said, 'I bet you he's probably 6-4, 6-5, yeah.' It's just that he plays so fast that you don't think he's 6-4 or 6-5. If Ja Morant wasn't at Murray State, you'd be looking at Coby White saying the exact same things about him. Long, athletic, fast from end to end. About as fast as anybody. The Peters kid from Mississippi State is probably the fastest guy we've seen. He's 5-10. This kid's 6-4, 6-5. That's fast. That's the key to North Carolina's break. They just get it down there make or miss. We've got to get back in transition and do some things in our transition defense to get back and try to duplicate the speed at which they push it. We like to push it fast too. Kenny Williams is an elite defender. He's either going to have Jared or Bryce. He can't guard them both, but he'll have one of them. Great length. Does a great job of taking charges. They will contest shots. That's one of the things they do defensively very well because of their length. So yeah, it'll be a great matchup of guards. Then you've got Cam Johnson at 6-9 who is a big guard, and he just shoots over the top of everybody. Bryce Brown's the best catch-and-stick shooter in college basketball. Cam Johnson is probably next. He's really good.
DOES JARED FEEL CHALLENGED BY OTHER GOOD GUARDS
You'd have to ask to Jared. Knowing Jared, I think he would look at the other point guards in the tournament. Not every player would. I think Jared would. He would size them up and see who's still left and be reminded that he was not on the Bob Cousy list for best point guards in college basketball. So he's trying to play his way into that conversation. So I'm sure he is. There are a lot of outstanding guards."
KEPT KANSAS AWAY FROM THE BASKET
"Getting it inside against Kansas?
"Oh, no question. That was their gameplan. I thought we did a pretty good job of extending catches, handle the ball a little further away than what they're comfortable doing -- not making it as easy on them throwing it inside. I mean, North Carolina is the same way. They'll do a good job with their inside-outside game. North Carolina shoots it better than Kansas did. Johnson is -- like a said -- maybe the second-best shooter in college basketball at 6-9. So, if we switch out on him a little bit, get a hand up in his belly button, gonna make it pretty difficult to contest shots. And then Coby White is shooting at a great percentage, also. And so, those two guys account for about 55 percent of their 3-point shooting. Kansas didn't have anybody that shot the ball as well as those two guys. That was one of Kansas' weaknesses we were able to take advantage of, certainly in the first half. They shot it really well in the second half. But, that's why North Carolina is a No. 1-seed and has only lost a couple times this year."
HOW DIFFICULT IS LUKE MAYE AS A MATCHUP?
"He's a great player. I got a chance to watch him last year over with the Atlanta Hawks when he was working out. He was working out the same time Jared was. His release on his 3-ball is so quick. I think he's going to be a good pro because he's 6-8, but he plays bigger. He gets his hands on everything. He's got great hands. He can finish around the basket. He just knows how to play -- and he can extend the defense. So, he's a tough matchup for everybody, but we have one of the best defensive forwards in college basketball in Chuma Okeke, and there will be times, kind of like when Lawson played the 4, when Chuma will be able to guard him. I'm certain they'll go right at Chuma and try to get him in foul trouble. Luke goes to foul line a ton. And, so, I'm sure they're going to attack Chuma. And when they do play smaller, they don't play Garrison, or they don't play a traditional center, he goes to the 5 spot, that can be even more challenging for our guys to guard them on the perimeter. Our 5 men, Austin and Anfernee and Horace, are all capable of getting out there on the perimeter, but that's going to be a challenging matchups."
TURNOVER RATIO VASTLY IMPROVED
"I think -- like Tennessee, a lot of it has to do with the matchups. Teams -- let's just say South Carolina and we'll extend a little bit more. I don't know how many times we turned it over against them, but that'll be a team that will try to force some turnovers. Tennessee will be more of a solid defensive team, therefore, they're not trying to create turnovers. We're trying to create turnovers; we're not always solid. So, some of it may have to do with the opponent, some of it may have to do with -- in March, our guys have been pretty locked in, going to their strengths, staying away from their weaknesses, a better understanding of valuing possessions. In other words, we want to play fast. And occasionally, we'll take a bad shot early in transition. Maybe more than occasionally. But once everybody's back, Jared has done a good job of getting them organized and, like I said, run something. It doesn't matter what it is. I think we've done a better job of that."
You are Bill Belichick and Jared Harper is Tom Brady, correct?
“You know, guys, I occasionally like to have fun with stuff like this. It’s my way of giving Jared credit for having a high basketball IQ. There will be times when I’ll have something called, and he will have already had a play called, and I’ll defer to him. It’s sort of out of respect. He doesn’t do it often. But if he has something out there, we’re in a free throw set and he’s been able to get to his teammates, I’ll roll with that, because, like I said, run something. He knows the things that we like going into a game plan. Usually, what Jared will do is it’ll be a heat check for his call. My call would be more of a matchup, a situation. He will tend to the guy that just made the last one and try to get them another one. Not trying to give the scouting report away; just being honest. And so my way of trusting him is to go with his call. His way of trusting me is to go with my call, and that’s sort of an example of, I guess—now, the difference at quarterback and head coach is Brady has an opportunity when he goes to the line to check out of a play. Jared does not have that ability.”
Can you lean on Marquis Daniels as a resource? He played in the Sweet 16 once.
“Well, I think Marquis has been a tremendously stabilizing influence on our team, and a lot of that stuff goes unnoticed. For whatever reason, Marquis was bought in to what we do. Now whether he was actually bought in or not, I don’t know. But I do know that he knows the importance of being bought in for the players. There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat, and I’ve always said my way is not the best way, but as long as we can get on the same page with it… So, when you’ve got an assistant coach that played in the NBA that believes in what you do and how you do it, then is able to convey that to the players in the good, the bad and the ugly, or times of adversity or challenges, it’s an incredibly stabilizing force for him to be able to find ways to not only train the players on the court, but also talk to the players about how they can be successful in the framework of what we do, what their natures are. Marquis and I have been very consistent. He’s a great listener, and he delivers a really consistent message. Yet, at the same time, he’s a players coach. That’s what hiss value is. It’s not so much first round, round of 32, Sweet 16—look, we’ll get to the Elite Eight because we’ll find a way to beat North Carolina, not necessarily because of his having been there before.”
What gives you confidence you can win a track meet vs. UNC and not have to settle for half-court sets…
“I don’t have anymore confidence doing it the way we do it other than the fact you have to be who you are. You know, we’re not going to go crazy trying to run, but we’re not gonna not play the way we play—because I know we can’t beat them that way. Whether we can beat them the way we play them, I don’t know, and that’s why we’ll match up and see. I do know the last time I played Roy Williams, he put 100-something on us in New York City in an NIT game. It wasn’t very pretty, so.”
Having a 10-man rotation
“The one great thing about where we’re at right now, obviously we have the depth so we’re not fatigued. The only two guys on our team who should have any reason to be fatigued should be Jared and Bryce, because they’ve played—throughout the season they’ve played heavy minutes. The rest of the guys have all played the kind of minutes that they could handle. There are no freshmen out there who are going to be experiencing any kind of fatigue because it’s a long year. We have unfinished business. We’re still working. I don’t think we’re tired. I do think now guys understand what their strengths are, understand what their weaknesses are, going to their strengths, staying away from their weaknesses for the most part. If we continue to do that, we have a chance. If somebody decides that they’re going to go out there and try to be somebody that they’re not at this time of the year, that’s going to compromise our ability to advance, and the players know that. Whether that happens, trust me, it can happen, because I want them to be aggressive—but that’s kind of why we’re playing better basketball right now. I think our guys trust each other and rely on each other, and they know what to do and what to stay away from.”
Roy Williams have a team this perimeter-oriented before?...
“Um, I mean, he’s always had an All-American center that you could throw it in to, but Luke Maye is still a guy you could throw it into. Garrison will still do a great job on the offensive glass and finish around the basket and get fouled. He’s got some younger guys that could really play inside, but look, every coach’s job is to play his best players, so when Garrison starts he plays a great role for them, but when he’s not in there, they go smaller. When they go smaller, Luke Maye moves to the center at 6-8, Nassir Little comes in at 6-7 but he plays very—if Zion wasn’t at Duke, they’d be talking a lot more about Nassir Little at North Carolina. Nassir was the MVP of the same McDonald’s All-American game that Zion was in. I don’t know if Zion played in it but clearly was in the game. Nassir was the MVP of the McDonald’s game. (Cam Johnson is) 6-9 at the three-spot, 6-5 at two and 6-4 at the point. That’s their small lineup. So, but they obviously shoot it well from the foul line; they get there a lot. They shoot it well form the 3 and they get it inside and outside.”
Height difference is a big factor?...
“Yeah, I think I would say it’s more or as much on the perimeter as it is the rim. I would say at the rim, the one thing they don’t have is an elite shot-blocker. I think they cans core inside fine, but they’ve got elite shot-contesters. I mean, there will be a different—that hand is going to come up earlier and it’s going to stay up longer against this team because their length.”
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