Pearl, Auburn players find another source of motivation
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Auburn has found another source of motivation.
The 16th-ranked Tigers carry the top seed — and perhaps the biggest chip —on their shoulders into the Southeastern Conference Tournament, facing the Alabama-Texas A&M winner on Friday in St. Louis.
A team that could tout its underdog status all season, even while leading the SEC race the whole way, believes it was snubbed by the coaches in all-conference voting. Coach Bruce Pearl and players griped that leading scorer Mustapha Heron wasn’t among the 16 players recognized on the first or second teams.
Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were relegated to second-team status. Auburn, which shared the title with Tennessee, says it was the first time since coaches started picking teams in 1956 that the league champion hasn’t had a first-team pick.
“That just adds fuel to the fire for us, and we’re going to keep on going hard, keeping that chip on our shoulder,” said Brown, an AP first-team selection. “This is just the beginning right here. I just feel like this is going to start something even more special for us.”
Whether Auburn (25-6, 13-5) was snubbed or coaches just deemed other players more worthy, it does feed the Tigers’ under-the-radar mentality.
Pearl even noted that Friday’s game will be Auburn’s first appearance on ESPN’s “mother station.”
“The only thing you can do is to win and change the perception of your program,” he said. “And so yes, we will go back to still being doubted.”
Brown averaged 16.4 points and is the SEC’s top 3-point shooter. Harper is averaging 13.9 points and 5.7 assists, which ranks second in the league. Heron’s 16.6-point average ranks sixth.
The Tigers still talk about being picked to finish ninth in the league and a pundit’s prediction that they’d go 4-14 in the SEC.
So now they’ll add one more item to the list.
If Auburn is indeed still being doubted, it might have more to do with history than the current team. The Tigers are set to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2003 after winning the SEC for the first time in nearly two decades.
More eyes are watching now with the NCAA Tournament looming and Auburn landing on the “mother station.”
“My message to the team is this: If we’re going to continue to change perceptions in that sense, at this time of year everybody is watching,” Pearl said.
The team has thrived through the loss of three of its top players. Anfernee McLemore went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley have been held out all season in connection with allegations against former associate head coach Chuck Person, who is facing federal charges as part of a widespread investigation into corruption in college basketball.
All that dwarfs not getting quite the credit Auburn feels it deserved in postseason honors.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think anybody’s opinion of us matters,” Harper said. “It’s just what we think about in this locker room that’s most important. I know I’ll take all my teammates over anybody in this conference or anybody in the country.”
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