King's Court: Bruce Pearl's Improved Auburn Squad and More CBB Teams on the Rise

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King's Court: Bruce Pearl's Improved Auburn Squad and More CBB Teams on the Rise
Butch Dill/Associated Press

A few weeks before he was hired at Auburn, I had a 30-minute phone conversation with Bruce Pearl about his desire to return to coaching.

“It’s going to have to be the right fit,” Pearl told me in early March, “but, at 53, I fully recognize that I still have another run in me.”

That “run” could begin earlier than expected.

The initial thought when Pearl took over at Auburn was that it would take him a few years to return the Tigers to national prominence. Now it appears Auburn could be an NCAA tournament-caliber team right from the start.

Joe Raymond/Associated Press

Former Niagara standout Antoine Mason—who averaged a national-best 25.6 points last season—announced Wednesday that he’s transferring to Auburn for his final college season. Mason will be eligible to play immediately under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

In addition to Mason, Auburn has added power forward Cinmeon Bowers, the nation’s top-ranked junior college recruit, New Mexico State transfer K.C. Ross-Miller and high school standout TJ Lang, who was released from the national letter of intent he signed with Virginia Tech. Also joining the squad is Marshall transfer Kareem Canty, a point guard who will have to sit out this season.

With leading returning scorer KT Harrell (18.3 points) also returning, the Tigers should, at the very least, be in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth in 2014-15. And remember, all of this has occurred without much help from Pearl, who is nearing the end of a three-year show-clause penalty that prevents him from recruiting until Aug. 24.

The penalty was imposed after Pearl lied to the NCAA about a minor rules violation that occurred when he was at Tennessee.

“I take full responsibility for the mistakes we made,” Pearl told me in March. “There is a lack of consistency in the (NCAA's) process, and that can be frustrating.

“But when people ask me if I think I was treated too severely, I say, ‘No. This is what I did. It’s the penalty I got. End of story. If I don’t make these mistakes, I don’t get this penalty and I don’t lose my job. No else could’ve controlled that except me.’”

Pearl, however, said that “clearing his name” wasn’t one of his motivations for wanting to get back into coaching.

“I don’t feel like I have to coach ever again to prove anything to anybody,” he said. “We've won at every level. And we just didn’t win at every level. We won big. And we just didn’t win big. We graduated kids.”

Pearl has been to the NCAA tournament in 17 of his 19 seasons as a head coach.

“We ran as clean of a program as there was in whatever league we were in," he said. "I don’t have to answer to anybody. My players know that, and my coaches know that. I don’t need to prove anything to anybody.”

Auburn is far from the only school that could contend for an NCAA tournament after falling short of the Big Dance last season. Here are a handful of other teams I expect to make significant strides: 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Illinois: Transfers Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall)—both guards—join a squad that returns standouts Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. Freshman forward Leron Black is also expected to make an immediate impact. The Illini went 20-15 last season and lost to Clemson in the second round of the NIT. Anything short of an NCAA tournament berth for this team will be a disappointment.

LSU: Even without Johnny O’Bryant and Anthony Hickey, the Tigers could be a force. Sophomores Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey could team with incoming freshman Elbert Robinson to form one of the most imposing frontcourts in the nation. And high-scoring junior college point guard Josh Gray will be an upgrade in the backcourt, where UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby will also be eligible.

Minnesota: Other than Austin Hollins (12.4 points) and Malik Smith (7.3), the Gophers return all of the key pieces from last season’s NIT Championship squad. That includes leading scorer Andre Hollins (13.6), a shooting guard whose senior season should be his best. Last season’s postseason run provided a huge jolt of momentum for Minnesota’s program and was probably more beneficial than an NCAA tournament appearance that likely would’ve ended after a game or two. 

SMU: Predicting big things from the Mustangs in 2014-15 is hardly a stretch. SMU returns most of the key pieces from a squad that was inexplicably left out of last season’s NCAA tournament. And the Mustangs added McDonald’s All-American guard Emmanuel Mudiay and Xavier transfer Justin Martin. After just two seasons, Larry Brown has put together a top-10-caliber team. 

Texas A&M: This is a big year for embattled coach Billy Kennedy, who needs significant contributions from highly ranked freshman point guard Alex Robinson and SMU transfer Jalen Jones, who led the Mustangs in scoring two years ago. The key will be whether the NCAA grants Houston standout transfer Danuel House a waiver that would enable him to play immediately. If that occurs, then the Aggies could be salty. Texas A&M won 18 games last season—and it should’ve been 20, as Kennedy’s squad was completely robbed of victories at Vanderbilt and Missouri thanks to two of the worst late-game calls I’ve ever seen.

TONY AVELAR/Associated Press

Utah: The Utes won 21 games last season, their most since 2009. That was also the last time Utah made the NCAA tournament. I wouldn’t be shocked if it made a return this season, as Utah brings back three players (Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor) who averaged double figures in scoring in 2013-14. The Utes certainly aren’t in Arizona’s class, but they should be able to compete with any other team in the Pac-12.

***

Do you remember who spoke at your high school graduation ceremony? Me either. But I’ve got to think most of the seniors at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois, were paying attention when Fred VanVleet gave the commencement address last week.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

VanVleet recently completed his sophomore season at Wichita State, where he started at point guard for a squad that won its first 35 games before falling to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament. He may also be the youngest keynote speaker in the history of high school graduation ceremonies. He’s certainly the youngest I’ve ever heard of.

Still, make no mistake. Selecting VanVleet to speak to the class of 2014 was a brilliant move by the administrators at his alma mater. I’ve been covering college basketball for 15 years now, and I can’t remember many athletes who have impressed me as much as VanVleet, who epitomizes what can be achieved through hard work, dedication and making the right decisions.

VanVleet, whose father was killed in a drug deal during his elementary school years, was the perfect person to address a group of seniors in a city where violence, drugs, gangs and an overall sense of malaise are prevalent. Click here for a story I wrote in February detailing VanVleet’s upbringing. And make sure to click here to listen to his seven-minute speech. There’s some particularly good stuff at the 3:20 and 5:30 marks.

***

USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina point guard Nate Britt is making a rather unusual change during the offseason. He’s switching his shooting hand.

Britt shot 36.7 percent as a lefty in 2013-14 and made just three three-pointers all season. He’s hoping he’ll do better as a right-hander.

“Up through middle school, he shot the ball with both hands,” Britt’s high school coach, Steve Turner, told Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com. “A lot of people will tell you he’s going to be a better right-handed shooter. Watch his body. It’s more fluid. His body is more square to the basket. I’m predicting all of his percentages will go up.

“It’s going to catch people off guard. He can do both.”

***

I spent Wednesday afternoon at Kansas watching the Jayhawks in an intrasquad scrimmage. The game also featured former players such as Ben McLemore, Cole Aldrich and Tyrel Reed.

I’ve never been one to overreact to what I see in a scrimmage, but the guys who impressed me the most were Wayne Selden, Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene.

A McDonald’s All-American, Selden had an underwhelming freshman season in 2013-14. Part of that was probably because of the presence of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid but, still, Selden rarely seemed to be in attack mode. He averaged 9.7 points but cracked double figures just once in his final six games. He only had two points in a season-ending loss to Stanford. Wednesday, though, he was the most aggressive player on the court. He seemed to be playing with an entirely new comfort level.

Traylor bounced around the paint like he was on a pogo stick, constantly grabbing offensive rebounds for second-chance points or outhustling his defender for position down low. Traylor redshirted in 2011-12, so this will be his fourth year in the program. His experience and energy will be invaluable.

USA TODAY Sports

Greene played sparingly as a freshman, but I’m convinced he’ll be a difference-maker in 2014-15. He’s a 6’7” 2-guard with an NBA body. Greene constantly drew the ire of head coach Bill Self last season, especially during workouts. But oftentimes, when a coach is yelling at you, it’s a good thing because it means he sees a ton of potential. Self has said numerous times that he believes Greene will someday be a pro.

“Me and Coach kind of bumped heads last year,” Greene said. “I just had to learn. I was young. Experience was the best teacher for me. Now I’m more comfortable with the system, more comfortable with the coaching staff, more comfortable with Lawrence.”

Greene, who averaged 2.4 points last season, said he never considered transferring.

“It was frustrating, but I knew my time would come,” he said. “This is Kansas. Everyone’s time comes if you just stay dedicated and wait your turn. I knew there would be brighter days. I love Kansas. I would never leave here.”

 

Random Musings/Thoughts on Food 

*Looking forward to my first-ever visit to Seattle this weekend with some friends from Texas. Sounds like we’ll be hitting up the Rangers-Mariners games on both Friday and Saturday and visiting all of the restaurants and bars you folks have recommended in between.

After that, it’s on to Charlottesville, Virginia, for the NBPA Top 100 camp. I’m eager to see some of college basketball’s next big stars—i.e., Thon Maker, Ben Simmons, Diamond Stone—in person.

*Spent a few days in Omaha this week and, as always, stopped by one of my favorite places in America for wings: Oscar’s. The good folks there pride themselves in “char-buffed” wings, which are sauced and then thrown onto the grill for a few minutes prior to serving. Apparently some people around town are taking notice, because char-buffed wings are beginning to show up in places other than Oscar's. 

Credit: Jason King

One such establishment is Caddyshack,” a place I visited at the recommendation of Omaha World columnist Tom Shatel. A bar that serves cold beer and great wings that’s named after the best movie in the history of America? How could I go wrong.

I have to say...Caddyshack’s char-buffed wings were as good as the ones at Oscar’s. Not better. But just as good. Plus they had fun menu items such as the Lacey Underall Chicken Sandwich, the Spaulding Quesadillas and the Ty Webb Tater Tots. I suggested adding “That’s A Peach, Hon, Cobbler” and a "Baby Ruth Sundae," but no one seemed interested. Adding Fresca to the drink menu would've been a nice touch, too. But there were some really cool pictures hanging up like the one you see here.

*I stopped into QuikTrip yesterday and was excited to see that the nation’s most efficiently run convenience store had added egg rolls to the roller grill, right next to the always delightful spicy cheddar dog. Unfortunately, the egg rolls weren’t nearly as good as the ones I get at Jack in the Box, which may fry up some of the best egg rolls known to man. Order three of them the next time you’re there and, as you're driving, dip those suckers into the container of ranch dressing that’s resting on your console. You won’t be disappointed.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever ordered a burger at Jack in the Box. I probably never will. For me, it’s either egg rolls, tacos, bacon and cheddar potato wedges or the chicken fajita pita, which may be one of the healthiest fast food menu items ever that still tastes good.

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR

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