Bruce Pearl Is the Heartbeat of Auburn's Underdog Final Four Run

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2019

Bruce Pearl and his team celebrate Auburn's first Final Four berth.
Bruce Pearl and his team celebrate Auburn's first Final Four berth.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Symbolism in the NCAA tournament doesn't get much better than the way Auburn slapped its name on the bracket, affirming that it is indeed headed to a Final Four for the first time in school history.

Performing the honors was Chuma Okeke—the Tigers' most valuable performer two days earlier. But Okeke was in a wheelchair Sunday after he tore his ACL during the upset over the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. A late arrival for the regional final, he didn't come to the arena until the second half, but his timing delivered inspiration perfectly.

And "better late than never" is a fitting mantra for Auburn as it takes aim at winning a national championship next week.

The Tigers rose from the ashes this postseason, beating the then-No. 8 Tennessee Volunteers at the SEC tournament and then keeping the momentum going against some of college basketball's most heralded programs.

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In succession, Auburn has taken down Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky—all teams with marquee basketball pedigrees.

Until now, its significant basketball history was pretty much limited to the Charles Barkley era in the '80s. And back on Feb. 23, when Kentucky crushed Auburn by 27 points, no one could have predicted Sunday's thrilling overtime win.

Hoping to ease the sting after that blowout loss, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told his humiliated crew, "That's a Final Four team."

Wrong. Kentucky had all the ingredients to be a national champion, but Auburn had the bigger heart and came up huge when it mattered most.

"I wasn't mad at them," Pearl explained at a Saturday press conference. "We got hit in the mouth and we got beat up. But we didn't let it define us."

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Their definition is now tied to Sunday's 77-71 victory that came against all odds.

The Tigers' ability to survive without Okeke against a bigger Wildcats team loaded with future NBA talent speaks volumes about their perseverance, and also about their coach.

Pearl has had his issues—including NCAA infractions while at Tennessee that put him out of the game for three years—but he's one of college hoops' best in-game coaches right now.

The Okeke injury meant finding a way to replace the 20 points and 11 rebounds he had against North Carolina. 

Early on, it looked like Auburn wouldn't be able to solve that equation. The Tigers, who usually live or die with their shooting from beyond the arc, hit only one of their first nine three-point attempts while the Wildcats came charging out of the gate for an 11-point lead.

Auburn never did come alive on long-range shots and finished only 7-of-23. A stark contrast from its 13 and 17 triples against Kansas and North Carolina, respectively, that alone should have ended the hopes of a team dependent on threes.

But though they were considered mostly an offensive machine coming in, the Tigers found other ways to close the gap. Horace Spencer and a swarming defense stuffed Kentucky's final shots in regulation to give Auburn another five minutes of life.

Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 50 points and proved, yet again, that no one gets to the Final Four without a strong backcourt. The more experienced duo dominated Kentucky’s all-freshman backcourt of Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson, who were a combined 2-of-11 on threes.

Bruce Pearl takes the final snips as the net comes down.
Bruce Pearl takes the final snips as the net comes down.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The outsized Tigers also played high-alert defense that generated a whopping 10 steals against a team that forgot to value the ball.

Now headed to the Final Four, they haven't dropped a game since that lopsided defeat to the Wildcats. They looked vulnerable after struggling to outlast New Mexico State in their NCAA tournament opener, but they've been steamrolling ever since. They beat the Jayhawks by 14, and their margin against the top-seeded Tar Heels was a shocking 17 points. 

Pearl welcomed the chance to play three consecutive powerhouses.

"To have an opportunity to get Kansas, North Carolina and maybe Kentucky, what a better way of having an opportunity to make history [can there be] than to have that road to the Final Four?" Pearl said Saturday.

It's a year for rookie head coaches in the Final Four, as Virginia's Tony Bennett and Texas Tech's Chris Beard are also going for the first time.

Auburn will also finally get some athletic attention for something other than the football exploits of Cam Newton and Bo Jackson, which may not be an entirely good thing.

At a time when recruiting scandals are making national headlines, Auburn's program may get a closer look than it wants in the coming week. Two Auburn assistant coaches have been implicated in an FBI investigation of college recruiting, and Pearl served that three-year, show-cause penalty because of violations he committed at Tennessee.

But if he could find a way to undo Kentucky while playing short-handed, he'll also be able to handle whatever scrutiny comes his way.