No flash in the pan: Why Auburn and Tennessee can sustain hoops success beyond 2019
Right now, Auburn and Tennessee fans are riding high.
After frustrating, roller-coaster football seasons that ultimately fell short of expectations, both programs are in the midst of NCAA Tournament runs. That could end this weekend, or it could end in the Final Four in Minneapolis in a couple weeks. It’ll end with tears or it’ll end with confetti. Either way, it’s going to end and the ride will come to a halt.
Fans will be left wondering — what now?
It’s a question that Duke and Kentucky fans don’t have to ask, even when facing the reality of losing an entire starting lineup to the NBA. Some more future NBA players are already signed and months from being the new faces of college basketball.
That’s not the case with Auburn and Tennessee. Admiral Schofields don’t grow on trees and neither to Bryce Browns. And if they do, well, even Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari would like directions to get to said trees.
We know that Schofield and Brown are playing in their final games while NBA decisions will be made from juniors Grant Williams, Jordan Bone and Jared Harper. Obviously their decisions will play a big part in shaping each program’s 2019-20 outlook.
But regardless of how those dominoes fall, Auburn and Tennessee will be able to sustain at least some level of success once these special groups move on.
That’s been my belief watching Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes operate. That’s not to say they’re without flaws (some of their late-game decisions are questionable at best, in my opinion), but what both coaches have been able to do on the national stage is going to help them build the programs they promised when they were hired.
“I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy,” Pearl said back in 2014.
From Barnes, in 2015. “We’ve gotta get going. We’re not going to let outside people set our expectations. We can’t do that. We have to set our own expectations and the goal would be to get to the NCAA Tournament. You get there and you’re one of 68 teams that’s playing for the whole thing … we want a program, not just a winning team. We want a winning program. I am excited. I don’t know a lot about the roster, I really don’t. But between now and next year we’re going to get something together and we’re gonna, I’ll tell you right now our goal is to be a team that’s in that tournament next year.”
Barnes achieved one of those goals, and failed on another. His team wasn’t in the tournament the next year … or the year after that.
But that roster that he didn’t know much about was laying the foundation for what he has in 2019. Already signed was Schofield. A few weeks after Barnes was hired, Lamonte Turner and Kyle Alexander signed with Tennessee. That November as Barnes was beginning his first season, Bone and Williams both signed.
All are now key pieces of this special season of Tennessee basketball. All were 3-star recruits.
The Vols are in position to make a Final Four run without a single top-100 recruit on the roster. That’s the polar opposite of the narrative that followed Barnes at Texas, where he was criticized for not winning enough with mega recruits like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Now, the mega recruits are on their way to Knoxville. McDonald’s All-American Josiah James is signed and top-50 recruit Corey Walker is committed to Tennessee’s 2020 class. Barnes wants his teams moving forward to be a hybrid of the Texas teams that had plenty of NBA talent, and the early-year Tennessee teams that had a work ethic (and a conditioning program) that allowed them to outshine their pedestrian recruiting rankings. That’s coachable. That’s sustainable.
At Auburn, Pearl is able to recruit to his style, too. What kid wouldn’t want to play in a fast-paced offense that allows players to shoot with that kind of frequency? If the Tigers repeat their Kansas performance against UNC, Pearl might have commitments from every blue-chip guard in America by game’s end.
(Not really, but I wouldn’t be stunned if he did.)
It’s not like Pearl has ever really had a problem recruiting at Auburn, even before the Tigers were taking souls of blue blood programs in the NCAA Tournament. Call me crazy, but I think getting to the second weekend and displaying that style against UNC is only going to help Auburn’s national brand.
There’s another thing that I keep coming back to with Pearl and Barnes. Both have already done this — go to a football-crazed school and build a consistently good basketball program. It’s not easy.
Just ask Billy Donovan about that. While Steve Spurrier was the face of a college football revolution at Florida in the mid/late 1990s, Florida basketball was an SEC bottom-feeder in Donovan’s first 2 years in Gainesville. Nobody remembers that, though. What they remember was that for two decades after that, Florida was one of the most consistent programs in college basketball. They got to the NCAA Tournament in 14 of the next 17 years, and every few seasons, they had a special team capable of winning it all. Twice, in fact, they did win it all.
I don’t know that Auburn or Tennessee will ever have anything that will rival that 2005-07 Florida run. But I do believe that they can become similar to what Florida was under Donovan. They can consistently compete for SEC titles, make the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis and occasionally have a team that makes a deep run in March.
That’s what Barnes and Pearl set out to do. This weekend, they each have an opportunity to do something that’s never happened at either of their respective programs. That is, punch their tickets to the Final Four. Maybe they get there, maybe they don’t.
But no matter who the confetti falls on at season’s end, Auburn and Tennessee won’t be walking off the big stage for good.