AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn coach Bruce Pearl feels his program ''is in really, really good shape'' following a season marked both by progress and disappointing defeats.
For the first time in his tenure, the Tigers' coach will get most of his scoring and rebounding production back, including talented freshmen Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. It still didn't take the sting out of failing to make the NCAA Tournament or NIT, losing six of the last eight games or suffering some painful second-half collapses.
Pearl scoffs at any notion that his fourth season will be ''critical'' to his job security with a program that hasn't had a winning record since the 2008-09 season under Jeff Lebo. His own expectations will be high, though.
''We are in the upper division of any power 5 conference as far as the status of our program, where we are right now,'' Pearl said. ''That's how coaches should be judged. Do I want to go to the tournament next year? Absolutely. Should there be an expectation that we go to the tournament? Absolutely.
''Our program is in great position. Our program is in really, really good shape.''
The Tigers, who finished 18-14 and 7-11 in Southeastern Conference games, were the only team in the country to have its four leading scorers all be freshmen. That includes the program's first two five-star signees, Heron and Wiley. Wiley played in 23 games after enrolling at midseason and turned 18 during the season.
Heron led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding. Fellow freshmen Purifoy and Jared Harper also started while Anfernee McLemore played a key role off the bench. A pair of four-star signees, forward Chuma Okeke and point guard Davion Mitchell, are scheduled to join the team next season.
Pearl said the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Wiley is ''just scratching the surface'' of his abilities and could be one of the top offensive centers in the country next season. Wiley averaged 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds and was second to McLemore on the team with 31 blocked shots despite his late start.
Still, Pearl knows that fans would be justified in thinking Auburn should have won a few more games. That certainly would include the first-round, overtime loss to 14th-seeded Missouri in the SEC Tournament after blowing a late lead. Auburn also squandered a 23-point second-half lead in a loss to Mississippi in another example, but did sweep rival Alabama.
Pearl, who has led teams to 17 NCAA Tournaments, wouldn't talk much about postseason hopes before this season. He's already talking up his next team.
''Next year our expectations should be to be in the NCAA Tournament,'' Pearl said. ''I rarely, rarely said that. I talked about postseason. I wasn't going to put that on this year's team. I just thought it was too much to ask this year's team, but I thought the NIT was realistic. I think next year the NCAA Tournament is realistic, and that should be our expectation.''
More college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25