Alabama hosts Auburn in the first of two meetings between the rival programs. Due to an offseason hire, a spark to the basketball side of the rivalry may have been struck. Auburn made one of the splashiest hires in the offseason by hiring former Tennessee coach, Bruce Pearl. Despite Pearl being under a show-cause penalty at the time of the hire, Auburn made a move early in the coaching carousel before other, perhaps more attractive jobs, became available.
And more jobs would have become available. Regardless of what you think of Pearl (personally, his checkered history with the rules and buffoonish behavior have never been my cup of tea), you can't argue with the results on the court for the programs he has coached. In nine seasons at D-II Southern Indiana, Pearl took the program to the NCAA tournament each season, including a Division II national championship in 1995. In four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he took the program to two NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. That run, which included a win over Alabama and Mark Gottfried in the 1st round, raised Pearl's profile, and ultimately led to Tennessee hiring him. In six seasons, Pearl took the Volunteers to the NCAA tournament each season he was there before a certain backyard BBQ and the subsequent lies that followed landed the coach in hot water with the NCAA, relegating him to the sad existence of being a VP of Marketing for a Knoxville wholesaler while making a nice paycheck as an analyst for ESPN. To borrow a line from a classic 1994 rock song, "Times are gone for honest men, and sometimes far too long for snakes."
Unfortunately for Alabama fans, it's not a question of if Pearl will revive the Auburn program, but when. Excitement around the Auburn program within the fanbase, attention from the college basketball media, and successes on the recruiting trail are already painting the picture that Pearl, assuming he sticks around Auburn for longer than a cup of coffee, will be a problem that Anthony Grant (or the next guy) will have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Whether Grant is willing or able to embrace this challenge remains to be seen, but the tension for Alabama/Auburn basketball games should be much more palpable moving forward.
Due in part to Pearl's impressive coaching record, many media outlets are expecting Pearl to work miracles in his first season. The preseason media poll has Auburn at 8th, despite a lack of depth and overall talent in the wake of four sub-par recruiting seasons under Tony Barbee. Frankly, I think the media is a little too drunk on Pearl's charisma in its confidence with this Auburn team, but the league is wide open after Kentucky and Florida so I suppose anything is possible.
Auburn's main strength will be on the perimeter, thanks to a mix of returning players and transfers. K.T. Harrell is a 6'4, 212 lb senior who should be the leader of this squad. Harrell averaged 18.2 ppg for the Tigers last season. He should be one of the top scoring guards in the league, and could be a dark horse for all-conference recognition. Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5'9, 170 lb) was very much under the radar as a freshman last season, but he had a solid first year, averaging 9.4 ppg and 2.8 apg. Very quick, he could thrive in Pearl's uptempo system. The other guy to watch on the perimeter is Antoine Mason, a graduate transfer from Niagara (and son of NBA all-star, Anthony Mason) who averaged 25.6 ppg last season at Niagara. Also of note is New Mexico State transfer, K.C. Ross Miller, who is another graduate transfer. He averaged 8.3 ppg and 3.5 apg last season. Also returning is Malcolm Canada, a JC recruit in his second season. He had a modest first season with Auburn, but could find an increased role on this team.
Auburn will be thin in the post. There simply isn't much there at the moment, which Bama fans can sympathize with after the last two seasons. However, Cinmeon Bowers could change that perception. Bowers was rated the top Juco recruit last season by sites such as 247sports. 6'7, 278 lbs, Bowers averaged 12.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg last season at Chipola JC. He should get plenty of minutes in the post, but who will help him is a question mark. The most likely suspect is Matthew Atewe (6'8, 230) or Jordon Granger (6'8, 210). Jack Purchase, a freshman, is also 6'8, but at 198 lbs, he may not be doing much banging in the post. 7'1, 4 star freshman recruit, Trayvon Reed is expected to join the team in December once he completes some academic requirements. Assuming there are no delays there, he will provide Auburn with some much-needed length.
Ultimately Pearl is going to put Auburn in a position to compete in the SEC, but he may realistically need a year or two to make that happen. For that to happen this season, he will need his big men to produce and a good defensive effort most nights.
For more Pearl reading, check out this great Deadspin article from 2011 that was published in the wake of his downfall at Tennessee.