By LARRY VAUGHT
No team in the country has overachieved more this year based on preseason expectations than Auburn.
The Tigers were picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference but going into Wednesday night’s home game with Kentucky, Auburn is 10-2 and leading the SEC. Auburn is four games ahead of UK, the preseason favorite.
Auburn was given a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the recent mock selection process and has risen to the top 10 in the Associate Press rankings.
“What this does for me is give me an opportunity to brag on Auburn,” Pearl said. “Football was in the top 10 last year. We got a bunch of programs in Auburn athletics ranked in the top 10 … vet school, engineering school, business school.
“Auburn basketball has just not been holding up its end. For Auburn to be recognized among the top 10 in the country, it is a very positive thing as it relates to our attempt to try and gain some relevance.”
Pearl says his team never took the low preseason projection as a snub because of what it did last year.
“We never felt like we were being snubbed because we had such respect for our league. I asked our players, ‘Who would you think we should be picked ahead of?’ We finished 11th last year. The only thing we could do is show on the floor what we had and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Auburn had not lost at home this season until Texas A&M beat the Tigers last week a few days before A&M thumped UK.
Pearl said the home atmosphere was just as good last year for Auburn when most games were sold out.
“The difference is we are winning more this year,” the Auburn coach said. “Our atmosphere has been terrific. But the atmosphere around the whole league has been great.
“We’ve been good on the road, too. We were last year. We returned eight guys from last year, so experience has helped us. We don’t play differently at home or on the road. We try to play our game no matter what. Not much changes with us based on where we play.”
Mustapha Heron had 28 points in Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M. Jared Harper, Desean Murray and Anfernee McLemore also hit double figures in that loss. Leading scorer Bryce Brown, who is also the team’s best defensive player, suffered a shoulder injury late in the first half and didn’t return. He also missed Saturday’s game at Georgia that Auburn easily won.
Pearl said Harper’s speed and athleticism made a big difference at Georgia and Davion Mitchell had his best defensive game.
“Chemistry, toughness and resiliency – that’s what makes this team special. And this team has been really, really, really good,” Pearl said. “Harper has got a great rhythm to his game and he’s got great range on his jump shot. It’s his trust in his teammates, it’s his play-calling, it’s his defense, it’s his will to win that I think are the things that separate him right now.”
Auburn limited Georgia to 49 shots and got 23 defensive rebounds despite being a smaller team than Georgia. Georgia had beat both Florida and Alabama in Athens this season.
Heron said it’s not hard to explain how the Tigers win.
“We play hard. I think if you don’t play hard against us, you’re not going to beat us,” Heron said. “We just put more emphasis on it and are trying to play hard. I think we’re in better shape. That’s where it really comes in.”