HOOVER, Alabama — As high-profile college sports supporters or alums go, there aren’t many more invested in their school or team than Charles Barkleywho, especially when the spotlight widens during the NCAA tournament, always voices his excitement and fandom for Bruce Pearl and Auburn basketball, as well as other Auburn sports.
He gave fans a memorable image to add to the spectacle of Auburn’s run to the Final Four in 2019, when he decked out his seat on the March Madness TV set with Auburn decorations and balloons. He gave his cohort, Kenny Smith, grievance for days when the Tigers bashed North Carolina, Smith’s alma mater, in the Sweet Sixteen.
And in recent seasons, Barkley’s support has continued to swell, as he routinely highlights Pearl’s teams on his platforms, and also mentions Auburn’s handful of players in the NBA.
There was plenty to celebrate last year, when the Tigers rose to No. 1 in the polls, rode a 19-game winning streak and ultimately won the SEC regular-season championship with their best conference record in program history.
So Barkley laughed at the thought of the 2021-22 campaign being anything but a massive success — though he does understand why fans were bummed Auburn didn’t make it to the second weekend of the tournament.
“It was an interesting year for Auburn because it ended on a down note,” Barkley said Wednesday before the 2022 Regions Tradition celebrity golf event in Hoover. “I love Bruce Pearl. To tell you how far Auburn basketball has come: I never thought we would get to the point where we win an NCAA game, and people would be disappointed. That’s a credit to him.”
Shortly after the season ended in Greenville, with an unsightly loss to Miami in the Round of 32, Barkley called Pearl and shared his support for what the now-ninth-year Auburn coach of what he’s accomplished, and reminded him to reflect on just how dramatically the state of the program has been altered under his leadership.
“I told him privately — and I’ll tell him publicly, too: ‘Think about that,’” Barkley said. “… That’s a credit to Coach Pearl and his staff — the notion that Auburn actually won a March Madness game, and then they lost, and we were disappointed.”
Auburn won 27 games in the regular season, also a program record. Pearl received a contract extension in January that extended him through 2030 and made him, effective May 1, the fourth-highest paid coach in college basketball. He’s now No. 3, after Villanova’s Jay Wright retired this offseason.
Gone is what was possibly the nation’s top frontcourt last season, Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, who are both projected first-rounders. Smith could go No. 1 overall. The Tigers’ guard trio returns, as do three other members of the primary rotation.
Just like last offseason, Pearl will likely be breaking in five newcomers — only last year, it was four transfers and one freshmen. This summer, that ratio could be swapped, with Morehead State big man Johni Broome the lone transfer at the moment, five-star Yohan Traore the most recent 2022 addition, and with Auburn hoping to fill the last scholarship spot with five-star forward Julian Phillips on Thursday.
“Whether it’s reloading or rebuilding, that’s going to be for the eye of the beholder,” Pearl said. “I just think the summer is going to be really good competition — just like last summer. It was good. I think it gives us a chance — the kids are going to get better. They’re going to make each other better. We need to get better. … (The freshmen) going to come in, and they’re going to be pushing those guys.”
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