Auburn ended its best season in nearly two decades with abundant reason for both optimism and concern.
The Tigers could return every key player next season, perhaps including center Austin Wiley , but it’s not certain that coach Bruce Pearl will join them. Auburn is still unraveling the details of a federal investigation that led to the indictment and firing of top assistant Chuck Person and entangled two players and a pair of support staffers.
Pearl’s fate is unlikely to be settled before he sits down for a formal interview with attorneys conducting an internal review of his program. Neither President Steven Leath nor new athletic director Allen Greene has shed light on his job security pending that meeting.
The coach told reporters after Sunday’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA Tournament he feels his program is on ”very strong footing.”
”Now we’ve got to finish this process with the NCAA and in my mind, as long as there are no major findings that are tied to me we’ll be fine,” Pearl told reporters in San Diego. ”We certainly have some other things that we’re going to have to answer to and that’s why you have to go through this process.”
Person allegedly accepted bribes to steer players to a financial adviser once they turned pro and funneling some of that money to the families of Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Neither played this season.
The Tigers (26-8) have much to celebrate – and to look forward to, especially if Pearl is able to stick around. They won a share of their first Southeastern Conference regular season title since 1999 and snapped a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought, beating College of Charleston in the first round. Only the 1998-99 team won more games.
Barring early departures, every player in the regular rotation is scheduled to return from a team that set program single-season records for made free throws (647) and 3-pointers (324), along with blocked shots (180). That includes leading scorer Mustapha Heron, top 3-point shooter Bryce Brown and point guard Jared Harper .
Heron is only the fifth Auburn player to reach 1,000 points in his first two seasons. Brown, a first-team AP All-SEC guard, is 21 3-pointers shy of the Tigers’ career record held by Wesley Person, Chuck’s younger brother.
The NCAA has ruled that Wiley, a five-star prospect who enrolled midway through last season, is eligible to play next season. Purifoy’s status remains unclear. Both could also explore entering the NBA draft.
Wiley’s absence left Auburn severely undersized, especially with replacement Anfernee McLemore missing the final eight games with an ankle injury. Auburn went 3-5 down the stretch.
The uncertainty has helped leave Auburn without a commitment for the upcoming class. Five-star power forward prospect E.J. Montgomery withdrew his commitment after news of the investigation surfaced.
Pearl sounded a positive note on his program’s standing after the season-ending loss.
”This is where we want our basketball program,” he said. ”I have no seniors. No seniors. We’re the second youngest team in the SEC behind Kentucky. I feel good about the foundation of our program.”
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