The Auburn Tigers men's basketball team entered the 2021-22 season with five new roster additions and plenty of questions. Now, halfway through January, the 16-1 Tigers sit No. 1 in NCAA.com's Andy Katz's Power 36 rankings and No. 2 in the AP Poll.
"I don't think there's any doubt, no one is playing better basketball than Auburn," Katz said on the latest episode of the March Madness 365 podcast after the Auburn Tigers men's basketball team landed road victories over then-No. 24 Alabama and Ole Miss.
Auburn's success this season comes after finding impact players in the transfer portal during the offseason. After taking time early in the season to gel, the Tigers are hitting their stride, led by head coach Bruce Pearl.
"We've got a lot of new pieces, but they became great friends, competed to establish roles and then [have] worked hard to try and buy into the game plan and what they do best," Pearl told Katz.
However, it was no guarantee that the new pieces Pearl brought in would turn out prosperous; it's a risky proposition bringing in transfers as they might not fit the team. The latest crop of players had to cover immense ground before finding its groove, but Pearl and his coaching staff benefitted from its evaluation process.
"My coaching staff did a great job of evaluating tape after tape after tape," Pearl said. "We knew them, we knew their history, and we knew their strengths. We knew their potential."
Pearl and staff also knew the roles he would want and need each incoming transfer to have with the Tigers. Rather than adjusting a transfer's role, placing him in an unfamiliar position, Pearl has every player be himself, playing to their strengths.
It's allowed an easier transition and is why four of Auburn's five leading minute-getters are transfers. This includes undersized guards like Wendell Green Jr. and Zep Jasper; the two players faced questions about physicality after transferring in from schools much smaller than Auburn.
"The biggest adjustment is the physicality night in and night out. You gotta guard, you gotta rebound your position," Pearl said. "That's why a lot of coaches won't take those smaller guys. They don't bother me."
The "smaller guys" have answered any questions about the adjustment to Auburn handily. Green is the second-leading scorer on the team and together, Green and Jasper lead the team in assists.
While Pearl's transfer class is doing amazing, the crown jewel of his entire recruiting class is true freshman Jabari Smith. Smith is a National Player of the Year candidate and the potential top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. Yet, before Smith dazzled on the court, Pearl knew he had what it took to be a star.
Pearl recruited Smith, a Georgia native, for a long time before he stepped foot on campus. During the recruitment process, Pearl noticed Smith's work ethic backed up his talent; Smith arrived at his high school gym sometimes as early as 6 a.m., five to six times a week, to better his craft. Smith's work caught Pearl's eye, but it wasn't until Smith arrived on campus that he stood out the most.
"I had no idea how competitive he was," Pearl told Katz. "I didn't know how tough he was, and I didn't know that he had an inner confidence that is way beyond his years."
Smith and his confidence add to a talented Auburn roster filled with newcomers. Even with the success Auburn's transfer-laden team has had, the Tigers still have a chip on their shoulder after some people still doubt them.
"I'm disappointed that we're not number one (in the AP rankings) right now. We have the best record against quad one and two. We beat Alabama at Alabama. Gonzaga, who's ranked ahead of us, lost to them in Seattle," Pearl said. "Right now, based on our resume, we should be number one."
That resume includes last week's win over rival Alabama in a hostile road atmosphere to move to 5-0 on the road this season. Auburn's only loss this season came in double-overtime. Yet, the Tigers remain No. 2 in the AP Poll.
Despite doubters, Auburn is confident in itself heading down the final months of the season. Auburn's roster, built by the transfer portal, has established an identity that can continue its success.
"We know who we are," Pearl said. "We're humble and we're hungry."