Auburn, like (almost) every other football-mad town in America, has spent the last few weeks ramping up for another fall campaign. Most Tigers fans are, no doubt, very excited about their team's chances of making a run at another national championship, given Gus Malzahn's incredible offense and the return of Nick Marshall.
But while those fans have been anticipating zone reads in the sultry August heat, Bruce Pearl, like (almost) every other college basketball coach in America, has spent this spring and summer recruiting like a madman — even when he couldn't, technically, recruit. And his rampage over the last two weeks — when he could — might give those same Auburn fans reason to pay attention to a different pack of Tigers in the spring.
Because Auburn will almost certainly compete in the SEC in 2015-16, and might already be in line to challenge for entry to the conference's upper echelon this year.
If and when the Tigers do the former, we'll have to look back to this week. Pearl's show-cause penalty from the NCAA expired a minute after midnight last Sunday, three years after it was handed down in 2011 for hosting a barbecue at his house for three recruits, one of them Aaron Craft, while head coach at Tennessee, then lying to the NCAA about it. He was allowed back on the recruiting trail, allowed to have contact with "prospective student-athletes," in NCAA parlance, at that moment.
Spencer's pledge followed four-star forward Danjel Purifoy's commitment to Auburn on Aug. 22, and it was followed this week by a commitment from top-10 JUCO player T.J. Dunans and a commitment from top-10 JUCO player Trayvon Reed. 247Sports doesn't really rank JUCO college basketball players, because no one does, but still gives Dunans four stars; Reed, who signed with Maryland this spring before an arrest (for petty theft) left him unable to enroll with the Terrapins, was a four-star center in the class of 2014.
On Sunday, Pearl added New Williams, a point guard out of Santa Monica who fell just short of the Rivals 150.
In seven days, Pearl landed four top-100 players (Dunans would be one, if he were in the class of 2015 proper; certainly, his production is likely to be in that range for the Tigers), and that's without having coached his first game for the Tigers. Auburn is third — third — in 247Sports' team rankings for the 2015 class, behind only Arizona and Louisville. Auburn is ahead of Duke, Kansas, UConn, Florida, Kentucky, you name it: A team that finished 14-16 and 6-12 in the SEC in 2013-14 is outpacing virtually every blue-blood in college basketball on the recruiting trail, and is almost assured of a top-10 class at this juncture.
And that's not even factoring in what Pearl's Auburn did before this wild week. The work put in this spring is what might just get the Tigers into the mix in the SEC as soon as this winter.
After Pearl's hiring in April, as Gary Parrish notes, Auburn hauled in Cinmeon Bowers, a former Florida State player rated the best JUCO player in the class of 2014, snaked three-star wing T.J. Lang from Virginia Tech after the Hokies released him from his commitment, and brought in three of the most sought-after transfers in college hoops: Kareem Canty, the bright spot of a woeful Marshall team; Antoine Mason, the leading returning scorer in Division I, of Niagara; and K.C. Ross-Miller, a sniper from New Mexico State who was once committed to John Calipari and Kentucky.
As graduate transfers, Mason (who SB Nation's DevonTe Brooks interviewed earlier this spring) and Ross-Miller will both be eligible to play in 2014-15, as will Bowers; Canty will have to sit a year. Reed, too, should be eligible to play for the Tigers midway through this season, once he completes his junior college coursework.
And while Auburn was bad enough to get Tony Barbee fired in 2013-14, adding a few top-100 players might have made that roster good enough to win at least one of the three games it lost by single digits to Florida1 and Kentucky, and probably good enough to win some of the other six SEC games Auburn lost by single digits; certainly, more talent would have helped avoid a bad home loss to Northwestern State.
Auburn lost three seniors that keyed its 2013-14 team — leading scorer Chris Denson and bigs Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Allen Payne — and had freshman Dion Wade transfer, but it is well-equipped to replace all of them. Mason will likely be a more efficient version of Denson2, Reed should eventually be the sort of rim protector and rebounder that Dixon-Tatum was, and Bowers may be an upgrade on Payne at power forward.
There are risks to building a team around freshmen and transfers, but this same basic blueprint has worked for programs as disparate as Miami and Oregon in recent years. And what's coming back is good, too: Point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen was good enough as a freshman last year to indicate a very bright future, and wing K.T. Harrell was basically the shooter to Denson's slasher. In Canty and Ross-Miller, Auburn will have players very similar to those two for depth purposes, and the makings of a pretty good seven-man rotation ... without considering what Lang, or any other returning player who wasn't a major contributor in 2013-14, can give this team.
And in the 2014-15 SEC, a pretty good seven-man rotation alone could well be better than what most teams have. Kentucky is unfathomably deep again, and Florida is loaded with the youth that supplemented its experience last year, but beyond those two powerhouse programs, which should rule the league for many years to come, it's hard to come up with the next tier for the SEC.
Tennessee was the only other NCAA Tournament participant from the SEC in 2013-14, and only barely made the field before making a run to the Sweet 16; the Vols lose a lot, and though Donnie Tyndall might not be much of a downgrade from Cuonzo Martin, he's got a rebuild before him. Georgia, which finished third (and ahead of Tennessee) in the conference, should be an NCAA Tournament team, and Arkansas and LSU have the talent to be in the mix, but Mississippi and Missouri have many, many points to replace, and Alabama has never quite made it over the hump under Anthony Grant.
There is room for a third threat in the SEC — maybe not a threat to usurp Kentucky and Florida just yet, but a threat to beat those teams on the right night, and a threat to every other team on any other night. Few coaches would seem better qualified to make a bunch of players into a team, and an instant threat, than Pearl.
Pearl's built good teams without recruiting like this before, after all. He got Milwaukee into the NCAA Tournament in his second year, and though he was following Bo Ryan with the Panthers, it's not like Pearl had tons of talent to work with in that position. Pearl never missed the NCAA Tournament at Tennessee, after inheriting a program that hadn't been in any of its four seasons under Buzz Peterson, and got the Vols to their only Elite Eight ever in 2010.
And though Division II basketball isn't quite comparable to Division I basketball, Pearl's Southern Indiana teams never missed the NCAA Division II Tournament in his nine years there, either.
Pearl has been hanging around basketball since his banishment, working for ESPN as an analyst and giving anyone paying attention every indication that he wanted back into the game. Auburn, which has a shiny new facility and as many NCAA Tournament appearances (eight) in its history as Pearl had in 10 years as a Division I coach, rolled the dice on him while knowing full well that his show-cause would keep him off the recruiting trail for a few months.
There's still a long time yet to evaluate the wisdom of that hire in totality. But few coaches — anywhere, anywhen, in the history of college basketball — have run this hot before ever coaching a game.
The gamble has already paid off, it would seem.
Of the six SEC teams that played Florida more than once, a list that includes both Kentucky and Tennessee, the only one that didn't lose by more than seven points to the Gators was Auburn. And Auburn was in both of those games until the final minute. The Tigers, who finished 311th nationally in three-point shooting, made 17 of their 32 threes against Florida in 2013-14, so that's your best reason why, but it's still impressive.
Denson was seventh in fouls created per 40 minutes in 2013-14, and shot 268 free throws. Mason was sixth, and led the nation by shooting 357 free throws.