Pearl brought fans, SEC Tournament success back to Auburn

Bruce Pearl brought the fans and SEC Tournament success back to Auburn basketball.

The next challenge in a big rebuilding job will be bringing back winning records and postseason bids.

The Tigers finished Pearl's first season with their first three Southeastern Conference Tournament wins since 2009 in a surprising run to the quarterfinals. That finish took some of the sting off a 15-20 record that included just four regular-season wins in the league.

Auburn's season ended with Saturday's 91-67 loss to No. 1 Kentucky in the SEC after wins over Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU, which made the NCAA Tournament.

''These guys here really wanted to try to do something to lay that foundation and feel like they were a part of something that was going to be building,'' Pearl said after the final game.

Maybe that mission was accomplished at the SEC Tournament after Auburn limped in with a six-game losing streak.

It was the first losing record in Pearl's 21-year head coaching career. He had to shore up a thin, undersized, sometimes overmatched roster with graduate transfers Antoine Mason and K.C. Ross-Miller and junior college transfer Cinmeon Bowers despite being barred from recruiting by the NCAA until August.

This was more of a gateway year for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003. Pearl is trying to put Auburn on more solid footing with his first full year of recruiting.

Auburn's four-player signing class is ranked 12th nationally by 247Sports, highlighted by small forward Danjel Purifoy of Hargrave Military Academy. The Tigers also have a non-binding verbal commitment from highly rated Henderson, Nevada power forward Horace Spencer.

Pearl also courted fans heavily, even springing for pizza for students at his introductory news conference and handing out slices before the Alabama game.

Attendance at Auburn Arena grew by 2,000 fans per game to 7,825 on average for his first season.

The Tigers lose the SEC's leading scorer and SEC tournament star KT Harrell, along with fellow guards Mason and Ross-Miller. Top rebounder Bowers is expected back but was suspended for the Kentucky game because of an unspecified rules violation Auburn said it learned about after the quarterfinal win over LSU.

Pearl said the decision to suspend Bowers was made Saturday morning before the game ''and I hope that when we complete the investigation that we're OK.''

Marshall transfer guard Kareem Canty should provide a boost after sitting out the season under NCAA rules.

Forward Jordon Granger, center Trayvon Reed and guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, whose season was cut short by shoulder surgery, are also back.

The Tigers gained something to build on with the SEC Tournament run.

''In spite of getting beat 20 times now, these guys never quit,'' Pearl said. ''They never fell apart. They continued to buy in. So there were four teams left on Saturday, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, and Auburn.

''The foundation is laid.''

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