Preseason rankings show that Auburn basketball can't sneak up on anyone anymore
Bruce Pearl says he prefers being the underdog. But, even after losing two All-Americans in a SEC that's only getting tougher, playing that role is impossible now.
HC Bruce Pearl and SG K.D. Johnson (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Bruce Pearl was hired on March 18, 2014. But you could make the argument that this era of Auburn men’s basketball truly began almost four years later, on January 2, 2018.
That night, Auburn opened SEC play with a road game at Tennessee. The Tigers had won 10 straight non-conference games and sported a 12-1 record heading into Pearl’s former home in Knoxville. Before the game, Pearl wore a shirt that read “4-14” — Auburn’s predicted conference record by CBS Sports.
Auburn beat Tennessee in a memorable 94-84 shootout and would finish 13-5 in SEC play, clinching its first regular-season title since 1999 and its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2003.
Since the start of that season, Auburn has the most wins of any team in the SEC and the best non-conference record in the league. The Tigers have won two more SEC titles — the 2019 tournament and the 2022 regular season — and made a historic run to the Final Four.
And that’s a huge reason why an Auburn team that lost two All-Americans and first-round NBA Draft picks in Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler is still widely projected to be a top-15 team in the preseason.
The success between then and now has gotten the program to this point, but Pearl says he prefers when he was wearing that t-shirt in Knoxville.
“I got a ton of Lou Holtz in me,” Pearl said Tuesday afternoon. “I'm way better as the underdog. I'm way better when you're going to pick us 4-14, right? … So that's just not going to change. I can't change who I am.”
Pearl won’t change. But he has changed Auburn.
Even though college basketball is a sport built on constant roster turnover, due to the current one-and-done rule in the NBA and an NCAA transfer portal that is much larger than it is in football, there’s something to be said about the Tigers being projected as high as they are even after losing two of the best players to ever lace them up on the Plains.
“Auburn is a program that is expected to compete at the very highest level each and every year,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg, who was a guest at Auburn’s practice Tuesday.
The preseason rankings reflect that. Earlier this week, Auburn landed at No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press poll. This marks the eighth time in program history in which the Tigers were ranked in the preseason AP poll — and half of those times have come within the last five years.