Mar 18, 2014; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head basketball coach Bruce Pearl is welcomed by athletics director Jay Jacobs during his introductory press conference in the Auburn Arena on Tuesday. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA: Auburn Tigers An Early Sleeper For SEC Championship


Things haven’t been going too well for Auburn’s basketball program as of late.

Their last NCAA tournament appearance was in 2003. One notable player from that tournament team was Marquis Daniels, who averaged 18.4 points per game that season. The Tigers would lose in the regional semifinal to Syracuse, 79-78.

Since then, it’s been miserable for Auburn fans.

Last season, their attendance was a paltry 5,823 fans per game (Auburn Arena seats more than 9,000), ranking second-to-last in the SEC.

Fans found it hard to watch their Tigers lose games (finished with a 14-16 record on the year, 6-12 in SEC play). Although Auburn was 12-6 at home, attendance shows that fans were not very excited to see their team play. Much like Nickelback, they were always waiting on a different story.

Upon Bruce Pearl’s arrival, Auburn fans began to take notice immediately. In the first 24 hours after his hiring, Auburn received more than 500 ticket orders and also saw the donations for priority seating and deposits for tickets take a spike upward.

More than 1,000 fans attended the introductory press conference for Pearl inside Auburn Arena. The excitement was just getting started.

Pearl has really made his mark on Auburn Tigers basketball since his hire in March, even though he can’t really do anything until August as part of his show-cause penalty with the NCAA. This prevents Pearl from recruiting until just a few months before the season begins.

This was supposed to be a problem for Auburn. Instead, it’s been a blessing in disguise as his assistant coaches have been cleaning house on the transfer wire.

What Auburn has done is they’ve attempted to recreate the successes of Oregon and Iowa State have had over the past few years, bringing in established collegiate players to a struggling program and helping to get their feet off the ground.

After that, recruits see the success the program has attained and start to consider it as a primary college option more than they had before.

Nov 26, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Niagara Purple Eagles guard Antoine Mason (14) looks to pass during the first half against the Pennsylvania Quakers at the Palestra. Penn defeated Niagara 85-66. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In the last three months, Pearl and the Tigers have signed Antoine Mason (Niagara), K.C. Ross-Miller (New Mexico State) and Kareem Canty (Marshall) out of the more than 400 transfers from Division I schools this offseason.

Mason finished second in the nation in scoring last season behind Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Ross-Miller helped lead the Aggies to two NCAA tournament appearances in the last two years. Canty was a freshman last season for the Thundering Herd and will have to sit out the 2014-15 season but can return the following year with three years of eligibility left.

Those three players will join the incoming freshman recruit T.L. Lang, who averaged 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists for McGill-Toolen High School in Texas.

Auburn also brings in a junior vollege transfer in Cinmeon Bowers of Chipola College, where he averaged 12 points and nearly nine rebounds per game last season.

Mason and Ross-Miller each have one year of eligibility left and are eligible to play immediately for the Tigers this season. Those two will have a great impact for Pearl’s first team since his Tennessee departure. Together they combined for more than 34 points per game for their respective teams.

That’s a good thing to have for Auburn, who will be looking to replace last season’s leading scorer, Chris Denson (19.1 points/game last year).

These players, along with the returns of the team’s second leading scorer K.T. Harrell (18.3 points/game) and now-sophomore Tahj Shamsid-Deen gives a loaded backcourt, one that could rival Kentucky’s throughout the year and already has much more experience than the Wildcats’.

One problem for the Tigers is that they will be very thin up front.

The loss of Ashaun Dixon-Tatum, who averaged more than two blocks per game last season, will hurt in terms of size rather than production. They have two 7-footers on the roster still, but combined, Ronald Delph and Benas Gricunias averaged nine minutes and two points per game last year.

Their advancement, along with that of Jordon Granger‘s, will be vital for Auburn’s success this season. If they do that, then Auburn is immediately in business.

Dec 11, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; New Mexico State Aggies guard K.C. Ross-Miller (12) defends Arizona Wildcats guard T.J. McConnell (4) during the first half at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the scoring will come from the backcourt with Mason, Ross-Miller and Harrell leading the way.

Sometimes a great three-man scoring punch can be enough. The SEC is not what is used to be. Florida is sure to reload with talent, but most of their scoring, defense and leadership from last year’s Final Four team are now gone.

Kentucky, as always, has talented freshmen, but it we’ve learned anything from the Wildcats the last two years, it’s that sometimes it take a little while for those young talents to figure it all out and become a dominant team. Tennessee will be a mystery as well, as they also welcome in a new head coach and lost Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes from their Sweet-16 team last season.

This opens the door for Auburn to possibly win the SEC championship, also leading the way to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 12 years.

Bruce Pearl has already taken the bull by the horns without physically being able to grab that bull. What he’s accomplished in three months of limited action has been remarkable. The future is bright in Auburn, but it all begins this October when teams begin practicing.

It’ll be interesting to see what because of Pearl’s first Tigers squad, but don’t count them out of winning the SEC. He’s got the talent to get it done and the coaching edge to make it happen.

Tags: Antoine Mason Auburn Tigers Bruce Pearl