A school known for its football prowess, Auburn was a bit of a joke when it came to basketball, what with a 14-year drought of NCAA tournament appearances until last season.
Coach Bruce Pearl’s arrival in 2014, which began with 100 fans rallying for him at the airport, began a new era, though. One that embraced the underdog status, mixing in a little three-point magic and a dash of controversy, to usher Auburn into its first Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis.
“It’s bigger than basketball for us,” senior forward Horace Spencer said. “Really just doing it for Auburn, because Auburn hasn’t had a really winning historic program in basketball. … It feels good that we’re making this history.”
When Pearl came to Auburn, he was still under a show-cause penalty for his recruiting violations as Tennessee coach from 2005-11. Ahead of last season, assistant coach Chuck Person was one of several charged with corruption and fraud as part of an FBI investigation of coaches taking money to direct NBA-bound players to agents, financial advisers and apparel companies. Then-sophomores Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy sat out the entire season with eligibility concerns from that.
Add in a bad injury to then-sophomore Anfernee McLemore late in the season, and the Tigers were embarrassed 84-53 by Clemson in the NCAA second round last year.
But that experience only strengthened Auburn, a team built on double-digit minutes per game for 10 players, many of whom are veterans, none of whom is a big name. That under-the-radar status has counterintuitively inspired confidence, displayed each game with fast-paced Auburn’s thrill-inducing, turnover-forcing, high-scoring style.
Even the suspension in March of assistant Ira Bowman for his alleged part in a bribery scheme at Penn, plus losing top-three player Chuma Okeke to an ACL tear in the Sweet 16, couldn’t keep these Tigers down.
“No matter how much adversity [we] went through,” Brown said, “we always believed this is where we could get to.”