Season rewind: Bruce Pearl reviews Auburn’s SEC championship, NCAA exit

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(AU Athletics)

AUBURN, Ala. – Still feeling the sting from an NCAA Tournament defeat, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl credited his opponent, defended his players, praised the program’s latest championship and looked ahead to next season during Thursday’s season-reviewing media availability.

Pearl recounted the miscues that led to Yale overcoming a 10-point second half deficit to upset Auburn 78-76 last Friday in the round of 64 in Spokane, Washington, without minimizing the underdog’s accomplishment.

“By providing too many excuses I take away from what Coach (James Jones) said was maybe the greatest win in Yale basketball history, that we were the best team that they had ever beaten,” Pearl said. “They made shots, they made plays, they made their free throws and had a historic upset.”

Pearl reiterated his postgame analysis that, in his mind, Chad Baker-Mazara was undeserving of an ejection after committing a flagrant foul.

“We’re handling that with total accountability,” Pearl said. “Chad made a mistake. He should have never done it. He should have walked away.  Chad owned up to that mistake. He’s apologized for that mistake and he’s taken responsibility for it although the consequences were really significant.

“If somebody was messing with your son, you’ve got to stand up for your son a little bit, wouldn’t you? Stop messing with my son. He apologized. He made a mistake. I’m calling you out. I’m not having it.”

Pearl pointed out that Auburn’s 2024 SEC Tournament championship gave Auburn conference titles in four of the past seven seasons, joining regular season crowns in 2018 and 2022, and a tournament championship in 2019.

“SEC championships matter,” Pearl said. “They matter to me. I think they matter to our fans. I think they matter to the Auburn family. This was a great team at Auburn and I’m very proud of them.”

Pearl expressed appreciation for K.D. Johnson’s three seasons at Auburn, which included an SEC regular season championship in 2022 and an SEC Tournament title this season. A fan favorite, Johnson recently announced his intention to play his final season elsewhere.

“I want to congratulate K.D.,” Pearl said, noting Auburn’s NCAA Tournament appearances in each of Johnson’s three seasons. “Pretty good three-year run. He wants an Auburn degree. So does his family, so when he’s done playing wherever he goes and plays, we’re going to make that happen.”

Looking ahead to the 2024-25 season, Pearl said he will wait for Auburn’s players with remaining eligibility to decide their intentions, while perusing the portal to fill any potential gaps.

“I’d love to have them all back,” said Pearl, referencing Auburn’s frontcourt of Johni Broome, Dylan Cardwell and Chaney Johnson. “If we can, we’d have another dominating front line next year. That’s still going to work itself out.”

Arriving this summer and debuting in November, incoming freshman forward Jahki Howard and guard Tahaad Pettiford will soon be displaying their talents on the Plains.

“Tahaad is a scorer,” Pearl said. “He is an incredible athlete. He can make plays on both ends of the floor. He’s going to be one of the fastest, quickest, most explosive little guards I’ve ever had.

“Early in his career, I’m going to try to play him off the ball and let him do what he does. Get buckets.”

Auburn’s advantages help Pearl manage the Tigers’ roster in the transfer portal era, he says.

“One great thing about being at Auburn: guys like it here,” Pearl said. “They appreciate the opportunity to play here. They love their school. They love The Jungle. They love and appreciate the support they get.

“In this crazy world of NIL and portal, we have a huge advantage at Auburn. The kids want to stay. They want to stay here because they love Auburn.”