AUBURN, Ala. — As Bruce Pearl stepped outside of the arena Tuesday afternoon with the rest of his Auburn basketball team, he immediately threw his fist in the air and rotated it around, leading the fans at the Reverse Tiger Walk in a long “War Eagle” shout.
Then he held up two fingers and addressed the crowd.
“I’ve just got one thing to say,” Pearl yelled. “We are two wins away from the Sweet 16! And we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure you guys go to Omaha, Nebraska!”
Pearl knows how to get a message across to his team, and he’s flashed those two fingers a lot over the last few days.
He referenced them on Selection Sunday, right after Auburn found out it was going to San Diego for a first-round showdown Friday with No. 13 seed College of Charleston.
“It takes two wins to get to Omaha and the Sweet 16,” Pearl said. “That’s how we will approach it.”
Sophomore point guard Jared Harper — his point guard, his floor general, his “quarterback” — stressed the importance of the two before Pearl even met with the media Sunday.
“He just preached that two wins, you’re in the Sweet 16,” Harper said. “So it’s two wins, but you still want to take it one game at a time. So we just want to go in and just prepare like every other game and try to work on coming out on top.”
Before firing up the Auburn crowd on Tuesday with talk of the Sweet 16, Pearl sent the message to his players one more time at the end of an intense practice.
"You will not want to look back ever and say that you left anything out there."
— Auburn Basketball (@AuburnMBB) March 13, 2018
There’s no questioning the goal for Auburn basketball this week in San Diego.
Sure, the players are excited about getting Auburn back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. They’re excited about getting there as SEC regular-season champions for the first time since 1999.
“Before I came to Auburn, that was part of my decision — I wanted to make history,” Harper said. “Just coming to Auburn, the basketball program wasn’t as high as it is now, so we’re starting a new tradition.”
Just making it to the field of 68 in this position was higher than any preseason expectation for the Tigers — especially after the Chuck Person case related to the FBI investigation of college basketball that kept Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy away from action.
But Auburn wants to make more history. Pearl’s first tournament team on the Plains wants to be the fifth Auburn group to make it to the regional round at the Sweet 16. It also would be Pearl’s fifth Sweet 16 team; he had one at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before three in four years at Tennessee.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way this year,” junior shooting guard Bryce Brown said. “We still have a lot of work to be done. We’re out there to shock some people.”
While Auburn is the No. 4 seed — the highest one — in its San Diego bracket this weekend, it knows that expectations aren’t high. Pearl mentioned earlier in the week that he expected the College of Charleston to be a trendy upset pick, and he was correct. After all, Auburn has lost four of its last six games.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 5 seed Clemson plays a dangerous No. 12 seed in New Mexico State. It’s a game that could go either way, much like any in this area of the field.
“I think when you live in the 5-12, 4-13 bracket, I’m just telling you … any one of these four teams is truly capable of advancing because of the quality and some of the parity of all four teams in this bracket,” Pearl said.
With what it feels is a balanced pairing of games in the Midwest regional, Auburn knows it will have to play better than it has over the last month in order to get those two wins.
But that’s the goal, and it’ll be repeated publicly and privately for the next three days. The missed opportunities down the stretch don’t matter to the Tigers anymore. But getting those two wins does.
“At the end of it, it doesn’t matter what your seed is,” Harper said. “Everybody is 0-0. Everybody has an opportunity to win.”