AUBURN, Ala. — Before Bruce Pearl became Auburn’s basketball coach, he spent time as an analyst for ESPN. And years after experiencing the NCAA Tournament as a talking head, he remembered a conversation with Jay Bilas before entering his first big postseason with the Tigers.
“One of the things he said to me was ‘Just remember this, save your best for last,’ ” Pearl recalled Tuesday. “I said ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘Because nobody is really watching college basketball until March, and that’s when you need to have your A game, whether it be in studio or on SportsCenter or calling games.’
“In this sense, my message to the team is this: If we’re going to continue to change perceptions in that sense, at this time of the year, everybody’s watching.”
On Friday, Pearl will open the postseason on the flagship network of his former employer and Bilas’ current employer. Auburn will take on the winner of Texas A&M and Alabama as the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
The game will come three days after a day of disappointment for the Tigers.
Despite winning a share of the SEC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed, Auburn didn’t have a single first-team all-conference selection by the league’s coaches. Sophomore wing Mustapha Heron didn’t receive a single honor. Player of the Year and Coach of the Year both went to No. 2 seed Tennessee.
“I think it speaks to the fact that the league is obviously that good and Auburn, you know, we still have things to overcome,” Pearl said diplomatically Tuesday.
“Just, ‘It’s OK, so fine, you won one. Congratulations,'” Pearl said. “So, we’ve got to go win another one.”
Auburn has gone up against that attitude all season long. Some of it is valid. The Tigers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years or won a conference title in nearly two decades. Before this season, it had been five years since Auburn finished in the top half of the SEC.
Sophomore point guard Jared Harper, who landed on the coaches’ second-team with junior shooting guard Bryce Brown, says that makes Auburn’s upcoming opportunity even greater.
“I don’t know if I feel disrespected,” Harper said. “Just maybe we’re not as appreciated as other programs. Auburn hasn’t been a great program as of late, so maybe this will be the start of high respect for Auburn just going on for years to come.”
Between now and when Auburn gets that respect — or appreciation — the Tigers will use what happened Tuesday as motivation.
“That keeps that chip on our shoulder,” Brown said. “That’s kind of the reason why I wasn’t too disappointed that they didn’t pick us first team. They just added fuel to the fire for Mustapha and for me and Jared as well, and for all my other teammates that were left off. They’re going to keep on doubting us.
“Like I said, this is just the beginning right here. I just feel like this is going to start something even more special for us.”
Auburn’s improbable postseason journey begins Friday at the Scottrade Center. No matter what happens in St. Louis, though, the Tigers can rest assured they will break their 15-year NCAA Tournament drought as a top-4 seed. A No. 2 seed isn’t out of the question at this point.
That first matchup will come on ESPN, a network that has eluded Auburn during its championship-winning season thanks to the sport’s rigid TV scheduling. After all, no one saw this coming from Auburn.
“We’ve been on ESPN2 and the U and the SEC Network, which has been great,” Pearl said. “The coverage has been great, but we have not been on the mother station. We have not been on CBS yet. Those are just facts. No complaints because we chose not to complain about it. We chose to try to do something about it. The only thing you can do is to win and change the perception of your program.
“And so yes, we will go back to still being doubted.”