clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Do You Want to Get Closer to God?”: The Rise of Auburn Men’s Basketball

Under Bruce Pearl, the Tigers have gone from a sleeping giant to a no. 2 seed in this season’s NCAA tournament. What’s next? Just ask Pearl: “How many games does it take to win it all?”

Ian Klarer

On a Tuesday afternoon in February, deep into the long slog that is a college basketball season, Auburn men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl stands in a windowless room in Alabama, talking to his players about the immediate tasks that lay before them, but also about something bigger, something grander, something that Auburn basketball has never done before.

“Six games,” Pearl says. He’s wearing a gray Auburn hoodie over a gray Auburn T-shirt and gray Auburn sweatpants, and his hair and his goatee are, well, you get the point. It’s been 17 years since Pearl first emerged on the national scene by taking the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee to a Sweet 16; 16 years since he lifted Tennessee to national relevance; 11 years since he was fired from the same job after receiving a show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA. Now, Pearl has turned one of the country’s most historically moribund programs into perhaps the best team of his career, electrifying a campus that had rarely seemed to care much for men’s basketball until soon after Pearl showed up.

“We have six games to go,” he emphasizes, as he stands in front of a screen showing film on the Tigers’ next opponent, Vanderbilt.

Before him sit his Tigers players, leaning back in their plush film room chairs. There’s Jabari Smith Jr., a 6-foot-10 freshman with never-ending limbs and an exquisite jumper, and there’s Walker Kessler, a 7-1 sophomore and a smothering defensive force, the man Pearl calls the most dominant college basketball player in America. They are the twin planets around which Auburn’s offense and defense revolve, and they make up perhaps the most talented big-man pairing the sport has seen in recent years. For both, this is their first season on the Plains. For both, it will likely be their last. Smith may be selected first overall in the NBA draft, and Kessler will shortly follow.

On the floor, Smith and Kessler are orbited by spark plug transfer guards KD Johnson and Wendell Green Jr., along with a collection of holdovers from last season’s 13-14 team who had to step into smaller roles to accommodate Auburn’s influx of talent. Now all of them sit and listen to Pearl.

“How many games does it take to win it all?” Pearl asks.

Before anyone can respond, he answers himself.

“Six games.” He’s moving into a point about how the NCAA tournament is a six-game mountain, broken up into separate single-game climbs. Before that ascent, they have another six-game peak to scale in order to reach another goal.

“We gotta win six games to win the league,” he says.

Yes, of course, Auburn would also like to win the SEC. Six games from that moment, they will do just that, earning their first outright conference title in more than 20 years. But even before achieving it, even before becoming a no. 2 seed in this week’s NCAA tournament, it’s clear that goal exists in the shadow of another one. A goal that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. A goal that could change the way the college sports world views Auburn, and, in many ways, how Auburn sees itself.

Auburn v Arkansas
Walker Kessler
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It doesn’t take long. One look at the talent on hand in Auburn’s locker room, one look at the way their pieces click together on the floor, and you can begin to imagine a version of the tournament that ends with them cutting down the nets in New Orleans. There is something vicious in the way the team defends, a chaotic swarming on the perimeter, a quiet suffocation inside. Kessler, who averages 4.5 blocks and is among the favorites for national Defensive Player of the Year, loves watching the confusion on guards’ faces as they enter the paint and find nowhere to turn.

“You see it when they drive in there, and they kind of tool around and then just dribble out,” says Kessler, a sophomore transfer from North Carolina. “There’s a hesitation to shoot.” It’s fun, he says, to watch a guard approach him and Smith and then just as quickly turn around and dribble right back to the perimeter, helpless. “And then our guards are so pesky that they send them right back to us,” he says, “so they’re just in a conundrum.”

Offensively, the Tigers are less imposing, prone to bad shooting spells and reckless possessions from their guards. But in Smith, they have perhaps the most multidimensional scorer in the country, a 42.8 percent 3-point shooter who also has the athleticism and length to get to the basket any time he wants. “He’s the best jump shooter at his size in college basketball,” Pearl told The Ringer’s Mirin Fader earlier this year. For much of the season, Smith seemed hesitant to impose himself on the game, but recently his confidence has begun to match his talent.

The Tigers, with four new starters brought in via high school recruiting and transfer, barely cracked the preseason Top 25. After a double-overtime loss to UConn in the Bahamas in November, they ran off 19 straight wins to rise to no. 1. During the season, players felt an extra charge every time their team stepped onto the floor, a new energy in every building, home or away. When the Tigers traveled to Arkansas in early February, the Razorbacks set an arena attendance record. After Arkansas pulled away to win in overtime and snap Auburn’s winning streak, the fans stormed the court. “I was like, OK, they’re storming the court for us,” says backup center Dylan Cardwell. “Not only do they fear us, but that’s their Super Bowl. They could have the worst season from here on out, but they’ll always remember that night.”

Auburn made the Final Four in 2019, but that run came from nowhere, a 5-seed catching fire just as the calendar turned to March. The next season was cut short by COVID and the season after that transpired in front of few or no fans. When Cardwell arrived on campus last year, most of his classes were taken on Zoom and his games played in front of empty arenas. One of his favorite Auburn memories came away from the basketball court, when he stormed the field as a fan after the Tigers won the Iron Bowl. “You only storm the field or the court for the best people,” he says. “It’s an honor to be hated like that. … That’s kind of what made me realize, OK, we’re the real deal, is that people are selling out to come see us play. They’re not coming out to see their own team. They’re coming to see us.”

Here, I’ll admit something. I first got the idea to write this story while sitting at home one Saturday afternoon, aimlessly flipping channels, until I stopped on the Auburn-Kentucky game, on January 22. The first shot I saw was not Smith rising to shoot over a defender, or Kessler smothering a Wildcats forward at the rim, or even one of Johnson’s bull-rush drives to the rim or Green’s blink-and-you-miss-it scoring runs off the bench. The shot that grabbed me was, instead, a quick pan of the crowd.

Torsos were painted. Chests were thumped. Bodies were jumping, mouths screaming, decibel levels rising. It looked like a scene from, well, a basketball school. A deafening, intimidating, game-altering crowd. I texted my father-in-law, a die-hard Alabama fan. The last time I saw him, he read out loud a bullet-pointed manifesto listing all the reasons why he hates Auburn. Now that the Tide have won six football national championships in the last 13 years, I sometimes wonder whether he takes more joy from Auburn losses, at least on the football field, than he does from Alabama wins. I told him I couldn’t believe how wild the atmosphere looked and asked if he was watching this game.

“Yep,” he said. And then a line that I knew so deeply pained him. “It’s awesome.”

That’s when I knew I had to go.

Kentucky v Auburn Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

“Welcome to Auburn!” says a young man wearing a safari hat, sitting courtside one Wednesday night, minutes after the end of yet another Auburn win. “I hope you’re enjoying our lovely campus.”

This is Michael Floyd. He’s a junior, “from the great city of Brewton, Alabama,” which he makes sure to note is “the blueberry capital of the state.” Floyd is excited. Excited to be at Auburn, excited about the win, excited about every single word that he speaks. Within seconds of meeting me, he says, “Thank God I’m an Auburn fan,” with such a rich earnestness that I want to thank God he’s an Auburn fan too.

Auburn’s football program remains a regional force and a national brand, but right now, it’s kind of a mess. The team went 6-7 last season, and the administration nearly fired coach Bryan Harsin this February before deciding to retain him. While Auburn has traditionally been thought of as a “football school,” given its place among the SEC’s power programs, Pearl likes to call the university “an everything school.” He’s been known to show up at football games shirtless and to find a place in the crowd at softball or soccer games too, to give out doughnuts to students in the library during finals week, making sure he’s a presence all over campus, not just at Auburn Arena. Right now, though, it’s clear: The university’s highest-profile program with a chance to win a national title is the team Pearl coaches.

This suits Floyd just fine. While he loves Auburn football, he’s poured much of his energy into lifting the men’s basketball Tigers profile on campus. Floyd is vice president of Auburn’s student section, the Jungle. (Hence the safari hat.) He says that this was always his dream school, that he was accepted a few years ago on February 14 and immediately declared Auburn his valentine. He arrived and fell even deeper in love, with the school and the town, with its professors, its traditions, its teams.

On the basketball court, though, Floyd saw the potential to leave his mark. The team reached the Final Four months before he arrived on campus, and after two seasons dramatically affected by the pandemic, Floyd believed that this year Auburn fans could finally begin to properly celebrate the program Pearl was building. He thought that he and other students could help to push the program forward, providing the atmosphere required to turn a team into a perennial power. “Just like BP wanted to make this one of the best programs in the country,” Floyd says, “we wanted to make this one of the best student sections in the country.” He’d already begun lining up at 3 a.m. for 11 a.m. games; now he was part of the crowd that camped out overnight before the Kentucky game.

The overnight crowd evoked images of Krzyzewskiville at Duke, students putting up tents to secure their place in line before the game, Venmo donations coming in from fans across the state and the country to buy pizza for the campers. Says Dan Heck, assistant AD for marketing and fan engagement, “Never in a million years has that happened with Auburn basketball.”

It’s not just the students. There exist, down here in Alabama, a small but loyal group of lifelong Auburn basketball die-hards. And, well, those fans have suffered. “It was tough,” Johnny Kincey says of the bulk of his years as an Auburn fan. “Really tough.” Kincey remembers listening to Auburn games on the radio in the late ’60s and early ’70s, pretending he was All-American guard John Mengelt, using a bunched-up piece of paper and shooting into a garbage can in his bedroom as he listened to every game. In the ’80s, he watched Charles Barkley turn into a star, then saw the team make a surprise run to the Elite Eight two years after Barkley moved on to the NBA. Mostly, though, he saw a lot of losses, sitting courtside surrounded by a lot of empty seats. It could feel like Auburn basketball was his private obsession, an object of passion that few people around him could understand. “The excitement,” he says, “just wasn’t there.”

For decades, Auburn played at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum, a massive, cavernous venue that could feel sterile and decrepit even on the rare occasion that the arena filled with fans. In the ’90s, Cliff Ellis made the program competitive, but, says former guard and current assistant coach Wes Flanigan, “It always seemed like something was kind of in the way of our program taking that next step.” One year, it was injuries. The next, suspensions. And the next, upsets. In 1999, Auburn earned a no. 1 seed but lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16.

For Auburn fans, it wasn’t difficult to see their program as a sleeping giant. The campus sits a quick drive away from Atlanta, among the richest hotbeds of talent in the country. “For some of these guys,” Flanigan says of elite recruits, “we’re an hour and a half from their home. We play in the best league in the country. We have all the financial and administrative support that anybody could ask for. So why would you not come to Auburn?”

Still. The losses piled up. Auburn fired Ellis after going .500 in 2004, then suffered through a decade of ineptitude, first under Jeff Lebo and then under Tony Barbee, who was fired in 2014. At that point, over the previous four years, Auburn had the second-worst average RPI of any Power Five program in the country, trailing only TCU. And when the program looked around for its new head coach, it turned to a man who was then splitting his time between broadcasting and working an office job, someone who’d been fired from his last coaching job after lying to the NCAA.

Kincey remembers someone telling him Auburn was close to hiring Bruce Pearl. What do you think? The friend asked.

“Well,” Kincey said, “I don’t know much about his coaching ability, but I’ve seen him fill a stadium. He definitely knows how to put people in the seats.”

Auburn v Arkansas
Bruce Pearl
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

“Come here,” Pearl says, rising from a chair in his office one morning last month. “I want to show you something.”

He opens the door and points to a poster on the wall just outside. He calls it his program’s creed. “We came here to work hard. We came here to teach and to serve. We came here to win. We came here to build character, integrity, and strong men. We came here to do it together. We came to compete with sound minds, bodies, and spirits. We came here to give all the glory to God.”

There’s both a warmth and an intensity in his demeanor as he reads it, and though it’s a creed full of sports clichés, the kind of poster that you could imagine sitting on the wall of every office of every coach at every level, all across the country, there’s something about the earnestness with which Pearl shows it off.

Let’s be honest: Pearl has a reputation among casual college basketball observers as someone who may or may not be kind of full of shit. Part of it is his charisma. Part of it is his past: The Tennessee firing came after Pearl hosted a junior recruit, Aaron Craft, at his home, violating NCAA rules. Pearl initially told NCAA investigators that Craft had never been to his home, before requesting a second interview in which he admitted that was untrue. At Auburn, Pearl’s former assistant coach (and Tigers legend) Chuck Person pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for steering players toward a financial adviser. In December, the NCAA infractions committee placed Auburn on four years of probation and suspended Pearl for two games, saying that Pearl’s efforts to monitor his staff’s behavior were “tardy or limited in nature.” Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban last year, but the NCAA did not ban any additional postseason play.

After Tennessee fired him, Pearl stayed in Knoxville to be near his kids, broadcasting for ESPN and SiriusXM and working as a vice president for wholesale company HT Hackney. Basically, Pearl says, “I put stuff in convenience stores.”

When Auburn called in 2014, Pearl had a sense of what might be possible. “I saw that they were successful in a lot of other sports,” Pearl says. Not just football but gymnastics, softball, and baseball. Perhaps they could be successful in men’s basketball too. His first team went 15-20, but one of his favorite moments of that season came in the SEC tournament, when a 6-5 walk-on, Devin Waddell, started at center against eventual conference champion Kentucky and held Karl-Anthony Towns to no field goals. “We sent a message,” says Pearl, “that it’s different here at Auburn now.”

Recruits took notice. First Pearl landed Austin Wiley, a top-50 recruit from Birmingham whose parents had both played and fallen in love with each other at Auburn, the kind of recruit who any version of a competent Tigers program absolutely had to get. Pearl then reached across the border into Georgia to get Chuma Okeke (now on the Magic) and Jared Harper, who became the core of the 2019 Final Four team. “We won with really good players, but no five-stars,” says Pearl. “And then what happened was, after that 2019 run, the guys that were five-stars, especially from Atlanta, started seeing all those threes and fours become fives and said, ‘I want some of that.’”

Atlanta is the biggest city in the SEC’s footprint, the host of its football championship game, and, in many ways, the de facto capital of the league. But so many of the city’s top men’s prospects have opted to go farther from home in search of better basketball. Jaylen Brown went to Cal, Malcolm Brogdon to Virginia, Wendell Carter Jr. to Duke. Tom Crean managed to convince Anthony Edwards to go to Georgia, but for the most part, UGA and Georgia Tech have been too incompetent to keep the state’s basketball talent at home. Pearl saw an opening. The top three scorers on his Final Four team were from Georgia, as are four of the five starters this year, including both Smith and Kessler. Atlanta native Isaac Okoro, now a starting wing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, remembers the relentlessness with which Pearl and his staff recruited him. “They were always there,” Okoro says. “High school games, AAU games, calling, texting, everything.”

Sophomore big man Dylan Cardwell remembers playing at the Peach Jam, one of the country’s biggest AAU showcase events, the summer after Auburn’s Final Four run. He would look around the gym, take notice of which coaches were in attendance. “Everyone notices the Roy Williamses of the world, the Coach Ks of the world,” says Cardwell. “Everyone sees the blue, the Duke and the Kentucky and the Kansas. They all travel in a pack.” That summer, Cardwell remembers Pearl walking into the gym with that Final Four patch on his windbreaker. “You could see the swag,” Cardwell says. Wearing that patch, Cardwell says, Pearl seemed to have his own gravitational pull. “Everyone was kind of trying to sit around him. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

This January, Auburn awarded Pearl with an extension, which athletic director Allen Greene has said makes him head coach “for life.” Technically, it’s a deal worth $50.2 million, running through 2030, a sign of stability in basketball in a moment of relative chaos in the school’s football program.

When I call Pearl “coach for life,” he interjects. “As long as you keep winning,” he says, and then he smiles.

Kentucky v Auburn
Jabari Smith Jr.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

As college towns go, there’s not much to Auburn. They call it the Plains in reference to an Oliver Goldsmith poem that begins, “Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain.” The poem’s title? “The Deserted Village.” It fits. Driving in from I-85, the town just sort of arrives out of nowhere, strip malls all scattered around the perimeter of the university, a collection of pale brick buildings scattered around the campus’s crown jewel, Jordan-Hare Stadium. Elsewhere in the state, Alabama fans often refer to Auburn as “that cow town down the road.”

I ask Pearl to break down for me, when he walks into the living room of a five-star recruit, exactly what it is about this place and this program that he feels confident he can use to convince them to become a Tiger. Pearl lights up. “Great question,” he says, which should not be taken as a compliment of my journalistic instincts but rather as an acknowledgement that Pearl has now been given the opportunity to do what Pearl does best. To sell.

He leans back, comfortable. “You can get great coaching—really even better coaching—and great players, and great facilities anywhere in the SEC,” he says. He shrugs his shoulders as if to emphasize the point. “All that stuff is anywhere you go.” Now he leans forward. His voice drops for a moment. “Now, do you want to get closer to God? Do you want to learn how to be a better teammate? Do you want to be a better servant in the community? Do you want to be around other Auburn men and Auburn women? Are you interested in learning how to be a better husband? Because that’s what we do here, and that’s what we sell.”

The emphasis on religion fits at Auburn. The Princeton Review ranked it as the ninth-most religious college in the United States in 2017. Pearl, who is Jewish, talks openly about his own faith and encourages players of any religion to commit more deeply to theirs. “Now,” Pearl says, “you can look at me and be like, ‘Look, coach, thanks for all that bullshit, but I really just want to go to the NBA.’ And that’s fine!” He’s happy to sell that too. “They recognize what happened to Isaac Okoro, going from being [a top-50] ranked high school player, and a year later he’s number five in the draft. Or to Chuma Okeke, who’s a top-50 high school player, and then two years later he’s 16th in the draft. And does history have a way of repeating itself? I think it does.” (For his part, Okoro points both to the development he went through at Auburn and to the fact that he was underrated in high school as reasons for his rise. “In high school I was overlooked because I wasn’t scoring a ton of points,” says Okoro, now a defensive specialist and a starter for the Cavs. “I was always doing the dirty work. At Auburn I was showcasing my other abilities. Bruce put me in a position to do that.”)

Pearl emphasizes that he wants his players to be focused on the team while they’re at Auburn, doing all they can to push the Tigers toward success, but the moment the season ends, if they’ve drawn heavy attention from NBA scouts, then it’s time to look out for themselves. “You’re going to play for a coach who tells you, ‘You don’t need to go pro, but you got to get the hell up out of here,’ if you’re a first-rounder. We’re not waiting for you to be a lottery pick. If you’re a first-rounder, you’re gone.” (Adds Okoro, regarding his conversations with Pearl when making his own decision: “He was like, ‘Not a lot of people in the world get this kind of opportunity. You gotta go.’”)

Before I see Auburn play in person for the first time, Pearl encourages me to keep my expectations in check. “Don’t be shocked when Vanderbilt’s in it for the entire game,” he says. “Don’t be shocked when it’s close.” He praises Jerry Stackhouse’s abilities as a coach, the talent he’s assembled on the Commodores’ roster. This seems like typical coach’s faux-humility, downplaying expectations, suggesting the gulf between his top-five team and its opposition isn’t as wide as people would otherwise believe. But with Pearl, and with Auburn, it’s never only about the product on the floor. It’s about the experience. And he clearly wants to keep those expectations in check too. “On a Wednesday night,” he says, “the energy won’t be quite the same that it was for Kentucky or Alabama or College GameDay or Oklahoma. We all have to guard against that expectation.”

Texas A&M v Auburn
Wendell Green Jr.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The next night, Auburn Arena is packed. It is small, yes, and it’s not as awe-inspiring as the scene at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena, but even 90 minutes before tipoff, it’s every bit as electric. Back in the locker room, Pearl is pacing, as if anxious to get started, and still not entertaining the idea of a blowout. “This is gonna be a tough one,” he tells me, quietly, seconds before addressing his team. “A really tough one.”

He looks into the locker room, and there he sees his players, trying to stay loose at their lockers, quick claps and interjections of Let’s go passed between them as they ready to run out onto the floor. Auburn’s program may be on an upward trajectory, but this team will be together for only a few more short weeks. This is the nature of college basketball in 2022, where team-building is done on the fly, through the transfer portal and the luring of one-and-dones; and where chemistry has to be built quickly for teams to peak at the only time of year that matters.

“Are we going to get better tonight?” Pearl asks. His players nod. Outside the locker room, you can hear the building chatter of the crowd, the thumping of music as fans file to seats. “Are we going to focus on getting our offense, our defense, our transition, and our communication better?” On this night, Auburn still has six games to go. They will lose two of them, on the road at Florida and again at Tennessee, but they will manage to hold off Kentucky and Tennessee to earn an outright SEC title, cutting down the nets back here at home on a Saturday afternoon in early March.

And then they will go to Tampa for the SEC tournament, and lose to Texas A&M in the first game they play. Several times throughout the SEC season, Auburn showed why it can win a national title. On that Friday afternoon in Tampa, it will show why it can be ripe for an upset. The Tigers will shoot just 16 percent from the field in the first half, and Johnson, the team’s second-leading scorer, will go 0-for-14.

Now, they will head to Greenville, South Carolina, as a no. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, hoping to climb another six-game mountain, to cement their legacies here before so many of them go their separate ways.

Pearl continues going back over the points of emphasis for the game—cutting aggressively to the basket on offense, closing out urgently to shooters on D. “Any questions?” he asks and he’s met with confident shaking heads. “We good? Let’s wear them out. Let’s go.”

Moments later, “South to West” by Gunna starts playing over the speakers in the locker room, and they move together through the tunnel and out onto the floor, where waves of noise wash over them, and when the game begins they are inconsistent one moment and brilliant and terrifying the next, cruising to an easy win and showing, for at least one night, the promise of a team that in March could deliver something this university only recently realized it could have the audacity to want.

One Shining Podcast

Outlining the Biggest CBB Story Lines and Kyle’s Wedding Special With Jim Cunningham

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Kyrie Recruiting LeBron and Jaylen, Harden and Dame’s Futures With Shams Charania. Plus the NIL Wild West in CFB With Bruce Feldman.

One Shining Podcast

Is Miami Having a Moment? Plus the ACC’s Next Move With Kevin Clark.

View all stories in College Basketball