AUBURN -- The difference between his past Auburn teams and now is a one-word explanation for head coach Bruce Pearl.
Auburn returned five players with starting experience from last season and that dynamic allows Pearl and his staff to have faith in his players to take a practice setting to the games.
"First of all, you let players determine their own roles," Pearl said. "You don't determine their roles for them ... but I do think if there's a certain level of buy-in that takes place, it's simply because these guys respect each other and trust each other to play within the framework of their role. Nobody knows more than a player what another player can and can't do. And when a guy goes outside of that, his teammates know it. We've always allowed players freedom. But our best chance to win is when guys go to their strengths and stay away from their weaknesses."
Following a 94-84 victory at No. 23 Tennessee on Tuesday night in Auburn's first road win over a ranked team in a decade, Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes had the biggest compliment to why Auburn is suddenly a contender in the Southeastern Conference.
"I think you have a team with Auburn right now, their players understand their roles and what they're going to do," Barnes said. "We should have two or three guys doing that and we haven't got it. Our frontline guys want to score the ball. They don't want to do the dirty work like those guys. They don't have the ball in their hand."
After a 2016-17 season where Auburn was near the bottom of the conference in nearly any defensive efficiency category, Pearl turned to a newly hired assistant coach for a recommendation. Maybe the only person who could tell his boss that his teams were soft on defense and in the paint would be somebody with the same last name.
Steven Pearl, who played for his father at Tennessee, was adamant that Auburn didn't have the toughness and defensive intensity that made Pearl's career with stops at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee.
"When Steven got on the staff, as he began to have a larger voice, his comments to me about our Tennessee teams were that our Auburn teams aren't any less athletic, and in some cases, less talented, but our Tennessee teams played harder or more physical and played tougher," Bruce Pearl said. "So we need to recruit and we need to coach accordingly. So Steven has brought the physicality, the toughness, the accountability, ending possessions, and his eyes will focus on the defense."
The result of Steven's constructive criticism of his dad's program is that Auburn is running out a starting frontcourt of 6-foot-5, 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-7. The Tigers have only been outrebounded once (at Murray State on Dec. 19) and seen offensive rebounds go up by just over three a game from last season.
"The chemistry is amazing and mainly on the defensive end, picking up for each other and covering for each other," junior forward Horace Spencer said. "It's just a good feeling to have the chemistry that we have."
Auburn will host No. 22 Arkansas (11-3, 1-1) on Saturday with a chance to join Kentucky and Florida with the program's first 2-0 league start since the 2012-13 season.
Prepare for takeoff pic.twitter.com/mMYAgXcYPw— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 3, 2018
The Tigers, who are using a CBS Sports opinion piece projecting them to finish 4-14 in conference play, have a chance to be ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2002-03 season (which is also the last time Auburn made the NCAA Tournament) with a win this weekend.
"We all know where we're picked. We all know where they picked us after the non-conference. We all know our television schedule compared to other teams in the league and their television schedules," Bruce Pearl said. "We're not good enough to be overlooked or be overconfident for anybody. We know there's a fine line for us. We know the margin is thin, but we trust each other, we believe in each other and being able to find ways to win games should give the team confidence."
This article is written by Matt Stevens from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.