NASHVILLE – It’s going slower than Bruce Pearl anticipated. And the once-celebrated Auburn coach has an entire offseason to think about the debacle that was the final loss — at the hands of his former program, no less.
Tennessee didn’t just beat Pearl and Auburn on Wednesday night. It thoroughly embarrassed them, 97-59, in the first round of the SEC tournament. There isn’t supposed to be a 38-point gap between the No. 12 and No. 13 seeds, but there was on this night.
Even worse, Tennessee was playing without leading scorer Kevin Punter, who had season-ending foot surgery last week.
“Difficult game. Very difficult season,” Pearl said afterwards.
Pearl has now endured two losing seasons on the Plains, going from 15-20 in his first campaign to 11-20 this year. There have been some big moments: The unexpected run to last year’s SEC semifinals, a home upset of Kentucky this year. He’s also been saddled with some key player losses; leading scorer Kareem Canty left the team earlier this season to pursue a pro career.
But it lost 17 games by double digits this season. And the worst loss came in the final game.
“It was a tough year,” Pearl said. “We had some very good moments. But obviously we were very disappointed.”
Pearl was hired two years ago in a wave of good feelings on the Plains, where Auburn hoped he would do for that moribund program what Pearl did for Tennessee last decade. It took an ill-fated barbecue and NCAA penalties to get Pearl fired at Tennessee, which is on its third coach since then.
This was the fourth time Pearl had faced Tennessee since he got to Auburn. Pearl is now 1-3 against his former team.
There’s evidence a rebound may be on the way: Auburn has a commitment from guard Mustappha Heron, rated the No. 21 overall prospect by Rivals, and point guard Jared Harper, the No. 52 overall prospect.
Still, Pearl was asked after the game whether the first two seasons were rougher than he’d expected.
“I hope you would think that it would be rougher than I thought it would’ve been,” Pearl said. “During the regular season for sure. Because we’re not happy with finishing 13th. At the same time, we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Pearl cited wins over Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas, saying that combination of wins hadn’t happened at Auburn since 1967. He also pointed out that the team played with as few as seven scholarship players.
“I’m very disappointed in our play. But I’m not at all discouraged at the direction of our program,” Pearl said. “I feel really good about where we’re going.”