College Basketball Nation: Auburn Tigers

Bruce Pearl is not a shy man. Whether it was painting his bare chest orange, singing "Rocky Top" in the cafeteria or firing up players, students and fans in any way possible, the former Boston College mascot never shied away from the spotlight at Tennessee and never missed a chance to promote and market his program.

Well, he's now at Auburn and is picking up right where he left off.

Take what happened recently during a marketing class on campus. In front of dozens of unsuspecting students, the Tiger cheerleaders, mascot and marching band -- along with top player KT Harrell and Pearl himself -- marched right into the classroom and formed their own little pep rally.

And amidst it all, the one-and-only Bruce Pearl is yelling, waving his arms and just doing assorted Bruce Pearl things. Take a look...

3-point shot: What Pearl is selling

June, 12, 2014
6/12/14
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Andy Katz discusses what Bruce Pearl is selling at Auburn, Utah's strong nonconference schedule and Jim Boeheim's thoughts on graduation rates in the latest edition of the 3-point shot.

3-point shot: Kris Dunn's injury

June, 4, 2014
6/04/14
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Andy Katz updates Providence's Kris Dunn's injury, Auburn recruiting without Bruce Pearl while he's under his show cause penalty and looks at Tony Bennett's contract extension at Virginia.
The question was simple and intentionally direct: Was Kelvin Sampson's return to college coaching at all motivated by a desire to clear his name?

The answer, though brief in words, was far more complex. Sampson paused for a good 15 seconds, a stretch that can feel like an eternity in a phone conversation. He finally exhaled and answered.

"Yes," he said, stretching out the word and pausing again. "I'm not going to go any deeper than that, but yes."

In sports, there is always a winner and a loser, and eventually the sting from even the toughest loss dissipates. But what if something else is lost in the quest for the big win, something more precious than a game? Like a reputation?

What then? How do you come back?

Two NCAA sinners are about to answer that question this coming season: Sampson at Houston and Bruce Pearl at Auburn.

Done in by hubris as much as by the NCAA rulebook, they each were fired from good jobs and slapped with a show-cause penalty, their transgressions deemed so egregious that they were told to stay away from college basketball for a while.

To continue reading this story, click here.

The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.

In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.

Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):

1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.

2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.

3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.

4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.

5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.

6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.

7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.

8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.

9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.

10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.

Look back, look ahead: SEC

April, 29, 2014
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Somehow, the SEC was the nation's most disappointing and successful conference in 2013-14. After a mad dash to Selection Sunday, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Missouri failed to earn invites to the NCAA tournament.

The three SEC programs that did, however, thrived. Tennessee began in the First Four and made a run to the Sweet 16. Florida, the top team in the country for a chunk of the season, was the favorite to win the national championship but fell to Connecticut in the Final Four. Kentucky, after a turbulent season, rode a postseason burst all the way to the national title game.

Only three of the league's 14 members secured NCAA tourney bids and all three were fabulous.

What about the other 11, though?

That's the challenge here. The NCAA tournament is the ultimate chapter of each college basketball season. Because the bulk of the attention the game attracts each season arrives in March, its postseason is largely viewed separately from the regular season. The latter means little to most because so many squads -- 19 percent of the 351 Division I teams -- have a chance to win it all.

If that's true, then the SEC had a banner year. But it's also not that simple.

[+] EnlargeAlex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAlex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are returning to Kentucky.
Those three highlights didn’t erase the overall mediocrity that defined SEC basketball. Or that Tennessee and Kentucky fell short of expectations prior to Selection Sunday. The only thing buoying the season for the majority of the season was a Florida team that maintained the top slot in the polls and won every game it played between a Dec. 2 loss to Connecticut and another loss to the Huskies in the Final Four.

The late-season highs were impressive. But the overall SEC picture was rarely pretty.

What we saw this season: Everything about the SEC was connected to Kentucky before the season began. John Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats didn't live up to the hype until the NCAA tournament began. They faced multiple Top-25 teams in the nonconference season but beat only rival Louisville.

Their finish, however, was remarkable. Somehow, this young Kentucky team defeated Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national championship matchup. Yes, the Wildcats lost. But they recorded one of the season's most impressive finishes in college basketball.

Florida, the first 18-0 team in SEC history, didn’t experience those struggles. The Gators were unstoppable once they got healthy. They dealt with injuries and suspensions at the start of the season, but won 30 consecutive games as a mostly complete unit, even though McDonald’s All American freshman Chris Walker didn't play most of the season. They didn't capture the crown but Billy Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance is worthy of kudos. For most of the year, Florida was the only program that made SEC basketball worth watching.

Georgia matched Kentucky’s 12-6 SEC record, a year after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the scene and Mark Fox made an argument for coach of the year.

It all got worse from there, though.

Tennessee's conclusion belied its overall season. Cuonzo Martin returned most of the standouts from a 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tourney, but Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and a healthy Jeronne Maymon weren't supposed to stumble into the NCAA tournament through a First Four matchup with Iowa. That's what happened, though.

Stumble was the theme of SEC basketball in 2013-14.

In all, four squads cracked the RPI's final top 50. Seven finished in the 90s or higher. Auburn (165) and Mississippi State (243) were at the bottom.

Every league has a basement. But the SEC's was difficult to identify because of the heap of seemingly average squads in the conference.

Missouri, with Jabari Brown leading the way, had some talented players, but a late 2-5 stretch that included road losses to Alabama and Georgia helped knock them off the bubble. Arkansas swept Kentucky but couldn’t manage any other impressive road wins. Johnny O’Bryant III led a talented LSU frontcourt, but the Tigers couldn’t play their way into the tourney either. Same for Marshall Henderson (19.0 PPG) and Ole Miss.

The rest of the league -- Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina -- all finished with sub-.500 records in conference play.

Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee definitely helped the league, but they were anomalies in a subpar conference.

What we expect to see next season: Things could be similar next year.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back for Kentucky. They’ll join Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein along with another elite recruiting class (see Trey Lyles, Karl Towns).

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
Andrew Synowiez/USA TODAY Bruce Pearl returns to the SEC, but has some work ahead at Auburn.
The Wildcats certainly aren’t alone at the top, but coming off a run to the title game, they appear to have the pieces to win Kentucky’s ninth national championship. Life in Lexington is good.

Florida could also be a national title contender if Kasey Hill and Walker continue to develop. Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith are back, too. But Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are not. That’s a major blow. But five-star recruit Devin Robinson is the anchor of another strong recruiting class in Gainesville.

The rest of the league is filled with question marks.

Things are fluid at Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn. All three programs have new coaches who have to persuade current players to stay on board and find ways to boost their talent pools for next year in the ninth hour.

Tennessee lost its entire recruiting class -- all four prospects requested and received their releases -- after Martin left for Cal and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall replaced him. Bruce Pearl is working the phones now that he's back in the game at Auburn. It's too early to know how the hiring of former Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson on Monday will affect Missouri’s future, but he won’t have Brown or Jordan Clarkson, who both declared for the NBA draft.

Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey return for LSU. That duo along with 6-foot-11 incoming freshman Elbert Robinson will lead one of the league’s top frontcourts. The Tigers should make a push for an NCAA tourney slot. Anthony Grant lost Trevor Releford, who will be hard to replace at Alabama, but Levi Randolph returns. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls helped Arkansas beat Kentucky twice last season and could help Mike Anderson’s program earn an NCAA tourney bid next year.

Georgia's Charles Mann & Co. will give Fox the same talents he had on a 12-6 SEC squad last year. If his youngsters grow, the Bulldogs could finish near the top of the conference again.

The return of Kedren Johnson from a year-long suspension would help Kevin Stallings' cause at Vandy. Billy Kennedy has a solid nucleus at Texas A&M. The Marshall Henderson Era is over at Ole Miss. And South Carolina and Mississippi State will try to turn the corner. Again.

Still, Kentucky and Florida will be the teams to watch in the SEC. The rest of the conference? As always, it's difficult to say.

3-point shot: Aztecs gain confidence

March, 25, 2014
3/25/14
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Andy Katz discusses San Diego State's confidence, Dayton's preparation and Bruce Pearl's recruiting dilemma at Auburn.

3-point shot: A valuable Pearl

March, 19, 2014
3/19/14
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Andy Katz on Auburn's hiring of Bruce Pearl, Virginia Tech's coaching search and how New Mexico is hoping to avoid another upset in the NCAA tournament.

It’s about the record, because it’s always about the record.

Auburn didn’t hire Bruce Pearl because he did well in the interview or because he already has some orange in his wardrobe.

Auburn hired Pearl because everywhere he’s gone, he’s won. From the smallest of the small (Division II Southern Indiana), to the middest of the majors (Milwaukee) to the biggest of the bigs (Tennessee), Pearl’s win-loss record is an unimpeachable 462-145.

And no doubt Auburn also hired Pearl because he’s a huge get for a program that doesn’t get many huge gets. He has charm, charisma and a name that immediately legitimizes a program that has long been the illegitimate child of its behemoth football team.

Auburn typically views basketball season as the stopgap between a BCS title game and spring practice. Adding Pearl could dramatically change that seasonal timeframe.

In getting Pearl now, at this particular crossroads of his career, Auburn gets a man who is ideally suited to fix what ails the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBruce Pearl had a 145-61 record at Tennessee from 2005-11.
Coaches love to break huddles with "stay humble, stay hungry."

Bruce Pearl is both humbled and hungry.

“I’m humbled," in fact, is how he began his statement included with the news of his hiring.

For Tony Barbee, Auburn was a step up the coaching ladder, a reward for winning at even-harder-to-win UTEP. Maybe things weren’t great on The Plains, but the money, the budget, the recruiting potential -- all of it was better than at El Paso. In 2010, here came a wide-eyed, new big-league coach, ready to conquer the world.

Pearl isn’t wide-eyed. He is clear-eyed. He comes to the Tigers hat in hand, happy to have the chance to coach again.

In August, the cloud of NCAA shame will be officially lifted from his name, when the show-cause penalty he earned for lying during the course of a 2011 investigation at Tennessee is over. The investigation, the accusations and the penalties shamed Pearl, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing.

No one needs public censure or ridicule, but Pearl, who tried to pretend he didn’t recognize a barbecue in his own backyard, was on the verge of becoming something plenty of successful people become: a tad too big for his own britches. Success comes easily, followed by adoration and admiration, and suddenly no one looks quite as pretty as that darned good-looking face staring back in the mirror.

Because remember, before the NCAA mess, there were the pretty girls in bikinis on the boat and the messy divorce, complete with a hair salon called Alimony's owned by his ex-wife.

If Pearl's response to his success wasn’t all wrong, it was at least a tad tacky -- a sign that the coach who had worked so hard, who had been almost publicly shunned by the coaching community after turning in Illinois to the NCAA while an Iowa assistant, had maybe lost some of his up-by-the-bootstraps ways.

To his credit -- really to his immense credit, because no one takes the blame for anything these days -- Pearl has spent his time in NCAA exile talking about what he did. He’s cautioned kids, coaches and anyone who will listen not to make the same mistakes he’s made, to always tell the truth and to own up to your mistakes.

Now Pearl re-enters the profession after a come-to-earth free fall, duly chastened, thoroughly reinvigorated and truly repentant.

And most of all, hungry to get back to work.

Auburn needs a hungry coach -- starving, actually -- because this job isn’t easy. The Tigers have eight NCAA Tournament berths in their history, five in the Sonny Smith era. The last successful run came in 2003 under Cliff Ellis. A year later, he was fired.

Pearl isn’t a magician and Auburn fans would be wise to remember that, but he is no stranger to rebuilding jobs.

Southern Indiana won 10 games before he arrived. Before he left, he had the team in the Division II national title game. Milwaukee never had won a Division I league title before Pearl. By the time he left, the Panthers had been to the Sweet 16.

And Tennessee had missed the NCAA tournament four straight years before Pearl arrived. Then, suddenly the Vols were 6-for-6 in tourney berths and, at one point, were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

That, of course, is why Auburn hired him -- the track record of success.

But the Tigers really are getting so much more.

They’re getting exactly what they need -- a coach who knows how to win, yes, but a coach who is hungry to win and humbled to have the chance to try again.

SEC team previews

October, 24, 2013
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider's hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the SEC:

Alabama Crimson Tide Insider
Arkansas Razorbacks Insider
Auburn Tigers Insider
Florida Gators Insider
Georgia Bulldogs Insider
Kentucky Wildcats Insider
LSU Tigers Insider
Mississippi State Bulldogs Insider
Missouri Tigers Insider
Ole Miss Rebels Insider
South Carolina Gamecocks Insider
Tennessee Volunteers Insider
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
Vanderbilt Commodores Insider

Nonconference schedule analysis: SEC

September, 10, 2013
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This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the SEC.

ALABAMA

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.

ARKANSAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.

AUBURN

Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.

FLORIDA

Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.

GEORGIA

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.

KENTUCKY

Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.

LSU

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.

MISSOURI

Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.

OLE MISS

Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season … a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.

TENNESSEE

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.

TEXAS A&M

Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.

VANDERBILT

Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.

3-point shot: More summer road trips

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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1. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim learned quite a bit about his team's character on the four-game tour to Canada last week. The Orange trailed Carleton by 15 points with 15 to play and came back and won by four in overtime. The Orange went on a 14-0 run during the second half and had to do it without a fully healthy C.J. Fair, who sat out the previous game. "We made a pretty good comeback for a bunch of untested guys,'' said Boehiem. "Everybody contributed and did something good.'' Freshman guard Tyler Ennis, who will lead the team at a critical position for the Orange after losing Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, scored 15 points and was 7-of-7 from the line in that game. "It was a good trip, a quick trip, but a good trip,'' said Boeheim. The bigs were solid and have been throughout the summer. That means there doesn't appear to be much concern for Fair, Dajuan Coleman, Baye Moussa Keita and Rakeem Christmas. Jerami Grant was the most consistent player and will be a reliable and productive player this season. Duke transfer Michael Gbinijie also had his moments. "We learned a lot about our team,'' said Boeheim. "We scheduled well early. We want to be ready for the ACC.'' The Orange should challenge Duke. Trevor Cooney will have to make shots. But if Ennis is a stable presence then the perimeter will be just fine. The Orange are in the Maui Invitational where they could meet up with Gonzaga. The Orange host Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, go to St. John's and host Villanova in headline nonconference games. Boeheim agreed with my stance that the ACC needs to have more than just Duke-North Carolina for premier games in the final weekend. Syracuse ends at Florida State. I suggested the ACC put rivalry games in the last weekend like Syracuse-Louisville when the Cardinals join the league in 2014-15. "Exactly, there should be better games at the end of the year, no question,'' said Boeheim. "There are too many potential good games. Obviously there should be Duke-North Carolina. But there are a lot of good teams. This certainly has the potential to be better than any league.''

2. The ageless Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who turned 65 earlier this month and has looked the same for the past 20 years, got exactly what he wanted in the trip to Greece. He scheduled practices and games against the Greek national team. He didn't want any soft competition. He wanted his players to experience professionals at the highest level overseas. "It was more like midseason practices,'' said Hamilton. "It was very good for our guys. We played at a high level and had to be focused offensively and defensively to compete.'' Hamilton said he never thought his team was in sync last season after finishing 18-16 overall and 9-9 in the ACC, a year after winning the conference tournament title for the first time. "We had seven first-year players and five freshmen and JC kids and international players,'' said Hamilton. "I thought we were always thinking and responding and reacting last season. But I saw a better grasp of execution [on this trip]. We showed signs we can get back to what we did during our four-year run of going to the NCAA tournament and winning the ACC title.'' Hamilton said different players were productive on the trip but the two leaders were as expected Ian Miller and Kiel Turpin. "They played very well together and as a team,'' said Hamilton. "We actually practiced zone defensive possessions. We had game-like practices. We didn't keep score in those or keep track but we had a lot of game-like scrimmages where we were rotating guys in and out. It was really, really good for us to correct our mistakes.'' Hamilton said this was also a positive trip for Michael Ojo, Boris Bojanovsky and Robert Gilchrist, the bigs who will be behind Turpin or at times next to him. Hamilton said he absolutely loves what he's doing, "loves the young people, traveling with them, being with them every day. Each year I have more energy. I'm excited about the new ACC. It gives you another shot of adrenaline. I'm excited to be a part of it and it does motivate you.''

3. Few teams needed something positive more than Auburn basketball on a foreign trip. Auburn coach Tony Barbee was buzzing about the excursion to the Bahamas. "I learned two things: we can really shoot the ball as a group,'' said Barbee. "We made 13 3s in a game from international distance. And juco transfer Chris Griffin made six. We should be able to score the ball better. We could have four or five double-figure scorers. A year ago, we only had one.'' K.T. Harrell will be a reliable scorer but if there are multiple scorers then the Tigers will at least have a chance to move up in a muddled SEC. The Tigers enter the season with six freshmen on the roster.
Did Tony Barbee overreact? Did Shaq Johnson -- one of the most talented and important pieces in Barbee's brutal rebuilding effort at Auburn, shortly entering its fourth year -- deserve to be kicked off the team for a minor misdemeanor marijuana possession charge? Or was it possible that Barbee, whose tenure has been pocked with player dismissals, transfers, and even a point-shaving scandal, was overreacting to a) prove a point, and b) improve some optics?

That might have been a fair question, but it does not appear to be the correct answer. Barbee discussed the decision in more detail with AL.com this week, and made clear that the marijuana arrest was hardly Johnson's first in the program:
"It wasn't a single incident," Barbee said. "It was kind of a pattern of behavior. Unfortunately, he continued to make the wrong decisions, and it was getting to a point where it was affecting the entire team, the entire program, so it was time to cut the cord."

"It's like I tell all my guys," Barbee said. "Life is about decision-making. If you continue to make the wrong decisions in this program, you're letting everybody know you can't be a part of it anymore.

Honestly, you kind of have to admire what Barbee has done at Auburn, in its own slightly weird way. No, he hasn't recruited very well, and yes, during his tenure he's had as many players leave the program (12) as the Tigers have SEC wins, and yes, that probably says something about the kind of guys he's trying to build his (arguably unbuildable) program around. But it's not like Barbee has been happy to trade scruples for wins. He's taken chances on guys, and they haven't panned out, and that process probably needs to change. But at least he's willing to cut the cord. Many coaches in his position -- facing a crucial fourth season with another almost entirely rebuilt roster -- wouldn't be quite so decisive.
1. Auburn's offseason news has consisted of a point-shaving charge to Varez Ward and now a marijuana arrest for Shaq Johnson. The Tigers haven't been relevant in years and don't get noticed unless something goes awry. Tony Barbee has had a significant turnover rate in the past three seasons, now up to 12 players through transfer or dismissal. Barbee had a respectable run at UTEP in four seasons, going 30 games above .500, reaching the CBI finals before an NCAA tournament appearance. The move to Auburn was a huge pay raise and seemed to be the right thing with the program needing another facelift. But the Auburn job is arguably one of the toughest in the SEC or in a top seven conference. Barbee has won a total of 12 SEC games in three seasons. That number doesn't look like it will climb much higher next season. Barbee didn't suddenly become a poor coach. But his attrition rate proves that selecting the right recruits and vetting them -- even more than normal -- has to be the new charge or else a chance to climb out of the abyss may be futile. Barbee is a reserved person, not one to draw too much attention to himself. He has no choice now but to hunker down and pull off the unexpected by rising above what are sure to be low expectations. The fourth year of a program is a pivotal season. The drama needs to end so the narrative can be about Auburn getting attention it earns on the court, not off.

2. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins was thrilled with the performance of one of his star players, Dwight Powell, who was second on the Canadian World University Games team in scoring at 12.1 points a game (behind Baylor's Brady Heslip) in Kazan, Russia, earlier this month. Powell lost his mother, Jacqueline Weir, on Sept. 13, 2012. Stanford's team and staff rallied around Powell and attended a memorial. Powell was able to still play his sophomore season and was named the Pac-12's most improved player -- going from 5.8 points as a freshman to 14.9 as a sophomore. The Cardinal have a real shot to finish in the top three of the Pac-12, and a lot of that has to do with the play of Powell. Dawkins is beaming with pride over Powell's development and his progress. He should. He has stuck by him throughout a terrible ordeal, thousands of miles from his Toronto home. These are the good stories, the ones in which a coach rallies around a player in a time of need with a bond built between the two that can have a lasting legacy.

3. As expected, Michigan gave John Beilein a contract extension, which takes him through the 2018-19 season. This is exactly what the Wolverines have needed -- a long-time, consistent coach who is a proven winner. Of course, it helps if he fits and the timing is right. Tommy Amaker came to Ann Arbor after the Brian Ellerbe years and following NCAA sanctions. The expectations were high but hard to meet. Amaker has found his groove at Harvard where he is thriving. Beilein had West Virginia winning at a high clip. He needed time to develop his style at Michigan. And he's rolling. Having Beilein locked in at Ann Arbor and Tom Izzo a fixture in East Lansing gives this in-state rivalry two of the game's best coaches. This should ensure that both programs will be regulars in challenging for Big Ten titles. Beilein made Michigan nationally relevant again by reaching the Final Four, and added a title game appearance to enhance the comeback story. The recruiting is still strong and the staff has settled down into a highly capable recruiting core. The Michigan students who arrived two years ago (and those who are to come) are getting a basketball program/coach combination that are in concert just as well as they were 20 years ago -- but without any of the NCAA enforcement drama.
When it comes to Auburn basketball, that (above) is usually the case. The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just eight times in school history, the most recent of which came in 2003. Not that most Auburn fans have noticed. Even the most noteworthy hoops alumni -- NBA legend Charles Barkley -- spends most of his Auburn-related "Inside the NBA" shout-outs flinging smack about college football. (Save for his classic story about once playing against an 18-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, followed by him making a call to Nike and telling them to tell Dirk that Barkley would give the German "anything he [wanted]" to come play to Auburn. Oh, what could have been.)

Point is, the history of Auburn basketball is not exactly glittering. And even so, things have rarely looked quite so bad.

Early Thursday morning, Lee County, Ala., sheriff's officers arrested Auburn guard Shaquille Johnson and charged him with second degree marijuana possession, a Lee County Sheriff's Office spokesman confirmed to ESPN.com Thursday afternoon. (The news was first reported by CBS Sports' Gary Parrish.) Later Thursday, Auburn coach Tony Barbee announced in a statement that Johnson had been dismissed for a violation of team rules:
"We hold our student-athletes to a high standard at Auburn University in the way that they conduct themselves off the court," head coach Tony Barbee said. "I am very disappointed in Shaq's choices and actions, and they won't be tolerated. This decision is not one that I take lightly, but it is in the best interest of both the program and the student-athlete."

This news -- that a mostly unknown Auburn player was dismissed following a misdemeanor drug arrest -- would be relatively minor if not for a couple of extenuating circumstances.

The first is that Johnson was, at least by Auburn's standards, a massively important player. He entered college ranked 99th in the 2012 ESPN 100, the second-best asset alongside No. 61-ranked guard Jordan Price and IMG College postgraduate Brian Greene. Over the next few years, that class was supposed to make Barbee's team competitive again, if not immediately, then at the very least gradually. The former didn't come to pass -- Auburn went 9-23 in 2012-13 and finished No. 194 in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings -- and the latter is no longer an option. Both Price and Greene left Auburn in April and May, respectively. Now, after just one (abysmal) season, all three are gone, and the large class slated to replace them doesn't comprise anything remotely resembling the 2012 group's talent or pedigree.

The second circumstance is more general. From our ESPN News report:
Johnson is the 12th player who has transferred or left Auburn under Tony Barbee since Decemeber 2010, a list which includes Varez Ward, who was charged with point shaving, and Jerome Seagears, who was at Auburn for three weeks this past spring before going back to Rutgers.

Even if you set the point-shaving mess aside, that is still a massive number of players that have left the program for one reason or another in less than four years. Rebuilding at a place like Auburn requires at least some measure of stability. You need solid-if-overlooked recruits to blossom into four-year program ambassadors. You need those old coaching buzzwords, which are buzzwords for good reason. Foundation. Culture. Belief. At the bare minimum, you need your most talented guys to not leave in droves for one reason or another. At a place like Auburn, you don't have to make a splash. It doesn't even matter if you go 9-23, as long you're clearly, if slowly, improving. But going 9-23 before this offseason? That's, um, not good.

No one ever said Barbee's rebuilding project would be easy. Auburn is Auburn, after all. But even if you grade Barbee on the most generous possible curve, the Tigers still aren't passing.

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