EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Bruce Pearl - he previews Auburn's season, portal, Jabari Smith and more
As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just a few weeks from now, with the "Champions Classic" getting things rolling on November 9th at Madison Square Garden.
And to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by college basketball nut and recruiting guru Jacob Polacheck.
Jacob has already done previews on Indiana, LSU, Maryland, USC and Colorado State - and today, he has something very special for you - as he sat down with Bruce Pearl for an exclusive interview about the 2021-2022 season.
Here is Coach Pearl discussing his 2021-2022 team, star freshman Jabari Smith, and how the transfer portal has helped reinvigorate his roster:
Q: Before we get into this year’s team, I want to provide a little context on last year’s team. Do you mind talking a little bit about last year’s season in general and maybe some moments that stood out to you?
BP: Last year, we were the youngest team in college basketball. We had five brand new starters. We had four freshman in our top-eight. All those young and new pieces presented challenges obviously, but we had a dynamic, offensive point guard for 12 games. Part of our challenge last year was that Sharife Cooper missed 72 days of practice working on getting eligible.
That was disruptive because obviously Sharife was going to run our team. He doesn’t get to do that until we’re in our, I think, third SEC game. You go from not having him to having him play 34 minutes a game as your starting point guard. It really dominated the complexion of our team when you don’t have your quarterback.
The beauty of last year is that we survived. The beauty of last year is that the kids, in spite of COVID, got to go to class. They got to play, they got to train and they got better. Two kids got drafted one-and-done. I had four freshmen that became sophomores that played a lot - Devan Cambridge, Allen Flanigan, Jaylin Williams and ‘Stretch’ Babatunde (Akingbola).
In addition to that, we were a team that in the preseason was pretty highly ranked because of our talent even though we were young, but we took the postseason penalty. That was not an easy decision because this was a team that could’ve been a postseason team. I think knowing there would be no SEC Tournament and knowing there would be no NCAA Tournament and the COVID year had a lot to do with a team that was .500 instead and finished ninth instead of a team that finished in the top-five. We weren’t that far away.
Q: I really want to focus most of this on the upcoming season. I would be interested to hear on the new pieces you guys have coming in, leaning heavily on the transfer portal. Do you mind talking about the newcomers and what your expectations are for them?
BP: I’ll start at point guard. We’ll have a brand new point guard this year. It’ll either be Wendell Green, Zep Jasper or K.D. Johnson. All three are transfer portal kids.
Zep is a graduate transfer. He was a combo guard at the College of Charleston and is a two-way player. He’s a terrific defender and he’s a very complete offensive player. He can make plays with the ball. He can shoot the basketball and so he’ll definitely play some point guard. He can also play off the ball. He’s a fierce competitor and he’ll bring a lot of experience even though he’s stepping up in class.
Wendell Green was on the OVC All-Freshman Team and was one of the best freshmen at the mid-major level. He had played high-level high school basketball at Lu Lumiere, so he’s not afraid of the competition. He likes to play with and against pros and reminds people of Jared Harper a little bit because he can really shoot the three ball. He’s not afraid of the moment. The reason why he was not at a high-level earlier in his career is because he’s 5-10.
KD Johnson had a really good freshman year at Georgia. I was one of the first people to offer KD a scholarship as a sophomore coming out of DeKalb. We had a relationship. KD is an explosive, powerful player. He can get downhill, he can score through contact. He went to the free throw line the second most times per minute played in the SEC last year. He’s an improved three-point shooter and a physical defender.
Those are the three options there at point.
Let me get to Walker Kessler. Walker was somebody we recruited at high school on our front door at Newnan, Georgia. He decided to come back home, if you will. He’s 7-1, shoots the three-ball. He’s a prototypical NBA center now because centers that can stretch the defense obviously are what everybody is kind of looking for. He’s a great kid, hard worker and he’s really long. He’s a long 7-1, so he’ll change shots at the rim. He runs the floor, is a really good athlete and will play facing (the basket) more than he ever had in his career so it’s going to be a little new for him. He’s typically been a back-to-the-basket player who could shoot, but now he’s going to be facing a lot. I hope it puts him in the best position to be great.
(In the spring, Coach Pearl talked to Aaron about Kessler, and his frustration with how Kessler's transfer from North Carolina was covered)
Q: You guys are bringing in Jabari Smith, what do you feel he’ll be able to bring as a five-star guy, highly-recruited out of high school?
BP: Jabari, he could’ve gone anywhere in the country, but he decided to stay home. Jacob, I know you do the recruiting thing as well. We’ve had four players from Atlanta in the last three years get drafted: Chuma Okeke went No. 16 to Orlando after his sophomore year, Isaac Okoro went No. 5 to Cleveland. Both of those kids were Top-50 kids, not McDonald’s All-Americans, but Top-50 high school players that came here, developed and got drafted. They’re both from Atlanta.
Then, last year JT Thor and Sharife Cooper both go one-and-done and both are from Atlanta. Jabari looks at the position of our big guard position of Tobias Harris when he was at Tennessee and then Chuma, JT and Isaac and goes ‘hmm, that’s what I am. I’m a big guard and it’s close to home.’
Jabari is a pro. He’s a pro person. He’s a pro student. He’s a pro athlete. He is disciplined. He’s accountable. He wants to be great. And yet, he still wanted to go to college and wanted to have that college experience. He knew he needed to get better and wanted to get better.
He came in at 200 pounds and he’s now at 223. Just since June, he’s worked so hard in the weight room, put on some size and he’s going to eventually be a lottery (pick).
He’s 6-10, shoots it, has a very high basketball IQ, great hands, great feet and a great IQ for a young player.
Q: You mentioned the recruiting stuff, I would be interested because you guys are really bringing in a majority of transfers as newcomers. How much the dead period affected how you put together this year’s roster in terms of the distinction between transfers and recruits?
BP: The transfer portal really helped us during that time because of not being able to get out and recruit. Auburn is a place that once you see it, we need visitors to be able to separate ourselves. It’s a beautiful campus. They call it the ‘loveliest little village in the plains’ for a reason. That’s what they call it because it is just as pretty a place as there is on earth. People love it here. There’s a family atmosphere that you feel here that you can’t experience on a Zoom call. The transfer thing was more about business, more about guards that wanted to replace Sharife.
K.D. knew us, Walker knew us, guys knew us before, so that was a kind of familiarity. I think now there’s going to be a blend between high school players and we’ll continue to work through the transfer portal.
Q: There’s also the advent of NIL now and you’re also recruiting a lot of these five-star and four-star players against some of these other pro options: G-League, Overtime Elite, etc. What aspects of the changing recruiting landscape have affected your recruiting?
BP: There’s never been more change in intercollegiate athletics right now. With the Alston Case, Name, Image and Likeness, the transfer portal and the advent of the G League and this (Overtime) Elite league, so I think it’s great. I think it’s great that kids have options. Different strokes for different folks, but there’s still nothing like college basketball, the value of a degree, the love and affection of the fan base and always being able to call a place like this home.
Whether you’re one-and-done or you’re here for four years, I’m just telling you, you’re going to be talking to players down the road who have gone pro out of high school and gone to college. I’m telling you the guys that have come out of college will tell you, ‘I wouldn’t give up my college year or four years for anything.’ That’s what you’re going to hear.
It’s a great country and I think it’s great that kids and families have options. The preparation that takes place academically, spiritually, socially, physically, emotionally, I think is in a very important transition period for a 17, 18, 19-year-old as we get them prepared for a life in basketball and a life after basketball. That value is not being sold or appreciated nearly enough.
Q: I want to ask about Allen Flanigan. He had that right achilles injury. I heard recently mid-December return is what he’s targeting. Any changes there?
BP: No, that’s it. Fortunately, he didn’t rupture his achilles. He just tore a percentage of it and they’ve sewed it back on, so he should have a much quicker recovery than a ruptured one, but obviously we’re not going to rush it.
Allen was the fourth-leading returning scorer in the SEC and he’s clearly our most experienced player, at least my best on-ball defender, my most trusted shooter and playmaker. He can score through contact, is a tough kid, a leader and so it’s a huge loss for us.
Q: Last thing I want to ask about is really the backcourt. How do you feel this backcourt is going to mesh together?
BP: I think the one thing, Jacob, about this group that gives us a chance, we’re going to get better as the season goes on because we’re so new. I’m literally likely to have four or potentially five new starters this year. That’s two years in a row now.
Two years ago, I had four seniors and Isaac Okoro. So, that team that didn’t get to go to the Final Four, defend its SEC Championship, that team was 25-6. We finished second in the SEC. We were a Top-20 team. That group then graduated,
Last year was young and brand new. This year is a little older, but also brand new. I can tell you, this is the hardest working team I’ve had, so far in the preseason, and this is a team that’s worked really hard to try and come together off the floor as well.
What we did building this thing, we got really good freshmen that became sophomores and by the time they became juniors and seniors, they were winning championships. That’s how we built this program.
I’m going to give you some numbers. Over the last four years, we won 94 games. That’s the most wins of anybody in the SEC. We have the best non-conference record of anybody in the SEC. So, this has been a three or four year run for us, but it was done through guys getting older, guys getting better.
Sharife Cooper was the first McDonald’s All-American to play any basketball for me. He played 12 games last year. I never had a McDonald’s All-American. We did this with three and four-stars.
For more college hoops coverage, make sure to follow Jacob Polacheck on Twitter @JacobPolacheck
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Also, for more Bruce Pearl coverage, here is his appearance this summer on the Aaron Torres Podcast