The players have done it all for Auburn, Bruce Pearl would surely say.
Every workout and every shot has been about the team.
Yet now, with grace, Pearl is turning it around.
Auburn men’s basketball is getting together as a group again on Friday morning. And for the first time, the players aren’t being asked to be selfless or to focus for the sake of the team.
Instead, Pearl said, he’ll look at his players and tell them that it’s now all about them.
Pearl and the Tigers are turning a page toward landing departing players opportunities in professional basketball, while adjusting the athletes to online-only classes at Auburn, now after the NCAA Tournament has been canceled amid escalating concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus and the sporting world has been torn asunder like never before.
Auburn was supposed to tip off play in the SEC Tournament on Friday. Instead, the team is gathering on an empty campus to talk about those next steps.
“Now, the focus is going to be, for these student-athletes, ‘OK, what’s next?’” Pearl said Thursday afternoon on an interview with SportsCenter.
The show’s news cycle was dominated by stunners: The NCAA canceled all championship events for the spring semester on Thursday, after heightened concern led to cancelations in bizarre scenes across the country at tournaments like the SEC Tournament, many of which had already tipped off. The NBA suspended its season on Wednesday night as many conference scrambled to try to pull of tournaments behind closed doors with no fans in attendance — before they were outright canceled. Auburn was in Nashville on Thursday morning and was seen by a reporter leaving practice in Bridgestone Arena with at least some players wearing sanitation gloves on the way off the court.
By the afternoon, they were back in Auburn, where the university announced it would move instruction to online learning starting Monday and continuing through April 10.
Pearl’s team has five scholarship seniors on his team who have played their last game of Auburn basketball, plus two walk-on seniors, and a player in Isaac Okoro who is projected high on NBA Draft boards.
Pearl said: “My focus tomorrow morning when I meet with my players is, ‘OK, our season’s over. We were 25-6. We finished second in this league. We probably would’ve been a four- or five-seed in the NCAA Tournament. But our time together is up. Now it’s about you.’
“It’s about each one of those individuals — and where do we go from here?” he explained. “Maintaining a good study in school, finishing up their degrees, moving my seniors on to what’s next, getting my returning players to start to focus in to next year — and, then, at the same time, understand we’ve got to stay healthy and stay safe.”
Pearl said he hoped he could keep his players on campus with him in the immediate future in part to help adjust them to online learning, though he said he was trusting in Auburn University leadership.
He has said that Auburn’s team was disappointed with its season ending, but that the Tigers understood that concerns are growing bigger than basketball now.
He painted the picture of the moment he broke the news to his team that the SEC Tournament had been canceled:
“I went to the back of the bus I told the guys before they got it on social media, and the reaction was pretty emotional, particularly for our seniors,” Pearl explained on ESPN.
“So obviously the student-athletes were disappointed,” he went on. “But being in the building this morning, it was quite surreal in the sense that it was empty and it was going to be empty when we were going to be competing, and there was so much else going on outside the building in the world that it seemed like what we were doing there may not have been as important as it was in other times in their careers.”
Auburn’s five scholarship seniors are Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley. They were celebrated on Senior Night at Auburn’s last home game along with walk-on seniors Will Macoy and Thomas Collier.
Pearl normally wouldn’t comment on the potential of a player like Okoro leaving early, but with the sports world upside down, it didn’t seem like a big deal for him to go ahead and talk about it.
Now, the team’s priority is all about the individuals.
Pearl plans to help guide them through uncertainty.