Bruce Pearl's rise as a head coach began in Division II and mid-major ranks after nine seasons and a D-II national championship at Southern Indiana and four seasons with a Sweet Sixteen appearance at Milwaukee.
“When I went to Milwaukee, I inherited a contract where Wisconsin actually played a three-for-one – and came to Milwaukee only once when I was there. I really appreciated that, so I just said if I ever get my opportunity to be a head coach at the high major level, I'm gonna do it,” Bruce Pearl said on Friday.
Pearl will stay true to his words as his Tigers head to Boone, North Carolina, for Auburn’s lone nonconference true road game of the 2023-24 campaign against Appalachian State – the sixth time Pearl has taken either his team at Tennessee or Auburn to a mid-major.
While Sunday afternoon’s matchup will be the first of three straight games away from the friendly confines of Neville Arena, with matchups against Indiana in Atlanta and UNC Asheville in a neutral site contest in Huntsville, Alabama, it will be the Tigers’ last true road test before they tip off SEC play at the raucous Bud Walton Arena against Arkansas.
“That's the reason why we're scheduled, you know, to have that test and have (in) that environment,” Pearl said. “They're very athletic again; they've got great size. They'll be jacked up. And we've got to be able to handle their elevated play at the same time and not let the environment disrupt our play.”
The Holmes Center will see its first sellout in nearly 14 years, with the Mountaineers’ last sold-out game being a loss against then No. 7-ranked UNC on Nov. 17, 2000, in the grand opening of the venue.
The Mountaineers roll into their premiere home matchup of the season on a four-game win streak. Appalachian State has held all four opponents below 40% shooting from the field.
Auburn, on the other hand, will put up quite the competition, ranking fourth in the SEC, averaging 81 points per game this season. It is the sixth time under Bruce Pearl that the Tigers have averaged at least 80 points per game through the first six games of a season.
The Tigers have seen increased success on the offensive side of the floor, in part, due to the addition of the North Carolina native and five-star McDonald's All-American Aden Hollway. But Holloway will face a new type of opposition when trying to run Pearl’s offense in his first collegiate game in a true road environment.
“Really, just the crowd is one big aspect, just being able to hear coach (Pearl) relay the play,” Hollway said when asked about the biggest adjustments to college basketball.
Sunday’s atmosphere can only go so far in the Mountaineer effort to slow down Holloway – one of six NCAA Division I freshmen averaging 11.0 points, 3.5 assists and shooting at least 40% from three-point range this season.
“Well, I've seen Aden really care about winning and winning first and foremost; his player development is important to him, but anything and everything he needs to do to improve, to adjust, to learn to get better. It's just all he cares about is winning,” Pearl said. “And that's going to serve him well this entire career.”
Offense on the road can always be difficult in college basketball, but as Pearl says often, “defense travels.” It’s certainly been the case for his Tigers so far, with Auburn holding four straight opponents to no more than 60 points for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
“Offensively, they do a lot of good stuff,” Pearl said. “It'll be all about really good preparation for us, but it won't be easy preparation because they do a lot of good stuff.”
The Mountaineers have had no trouble scoring baskets to start the season, as they have scored at least 70 points in six of their first seven games. Appalachian State has been led by preseason All-Sun Belt First Team selection Donovan Gregory, who is averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
The Gold and Black have also found success in the deep ball this season, having nailed at least five threes in 11 consecutive games. The Mountaineers are led by Christopher Mantis from beyond the arc, averaging 2.43 three-point field goals made per game – which ranks fourth in the Sun Belt.
Auburn, on the other hand, is fifth in the country in three-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 23.7% from behind the arc this season.
Over the last four games, Auburn has held its opponents to 14-of-85 (16.5%) from long range – having outscored their opponents by 63 points from three-point range this season.
“They've got high-major size. They've got high-major athletes. They're really well-coached,” Pearl said of his next opponent in Appalachian State.
The Tigers and Mountaineers are scheduled to tip off from the Holmes Center at 12 p.m. CST with national television coverage on ESPN2. The contest can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.
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