Back in March of 2014, Bruce Pearl was tabbed to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, a few years removed from recruiting violations at Tennessee.
Pearl was let go following the NCAA’s findings of recruiting violations with the Vols in 2011, and was hit with a three-year show cause, which didn’t deter Auburn from hiring him. At his introductory presser he noted that he wasn’t sure how long it would take, but he was determined to rebuild the basketball program.
His first two seasons ended with more wins then losses, but by year three they had started to turn the corner, finishing the year 18-14 overall. Pearl led the program to their best record in decades in 2017-18 and won the SEC regular season title, finishing 26-8 and making it to the NCAA Tournament’s second round. This season Auburn is sitting at 26-9 entering the Big Dance with a 5-seed, and just put together a run that captured the SEC tournament title.
The program has certainly turned a corner, and how they managed to do it includes an interesting anecdote tied to a top college football defensive coordinator.
For a lot of coaches, taking over a basketball program at a school so well known for football can be a very unique challenge, but Pearl embraced the football program and their coaches, eventually drawing some inspiration from Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
There are, of course, many similarities between football and basketball – like how important turnovers are, for example.
After winning the SEC tournament, Pearl had been getting a number of questions about their stifling defense. Here’s what he shared, courtesy of Benjamin Wolk.
“I’ve been asked about our defense. We forced 17 turnovers and had 14 steals. I spent some time with Kevin Steele in the off season. I asked KEvin, because I’m a huge Auburn football fan. I talked to Kevin Steele, who is the best defensive coordinator in all of college football, and I asked him, ‘What makes the defense so unique? What makes it so special?'”
“Kevin will deflect all the credit himself. It’s not about the formations. It’s not about the packages. He said, ‘We’re going to pursue the ball relentlessly.’ When you hear him say it, you have no question that his defense is going to pursue the ball relentlessly. If you won’t, somebody else will. Period. The end.”
“We’ve begun to take that approach to our defense. We are undersized. Deshaun Davis is undersized, right? But he’s going to pursue the ball relentlessly. You’re either going to play me or you’re going to play against me in the NFL. That’s the way Auburn’s defense plays. That’s the way our defense has started to play. That’s responsible for this March run.”
Pearl and Auburn will take their Kevin Steele inspired defense and face off against 12-seed New Mexico State on Thursday at 1:30pm.
My personal favorite Bruce Pearl quote from the post-game locker room, his explanation for the first-half defensive effort that sparked the victory: pic.twitter.com/DFCJv5sBG2
— Benjamin Wolk (@benjaminwolk) March 17, 2019