Auburn’s Pearl possibly facing 1st losing season as head man

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2014, file photo, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talks to his players during an NCAAA college basketball game against Milwaukee in Auburn, Ala. Auburn's first-year coach is laboring through a season with a team that's new to him, and largely new to each other, but says, "I really enjoy this team." (AP Photo/AL.com, Julie Bennett, File)

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Bruce Pearl is in danger of his first losing season as a head coach, but he’s not complaining.

Auburn’s first-year coach is laboring through a season with a team that was new to him, and largely new to each other, and is often outmanned by bigger, deeper opponents.

“I really enjoy this team,” Pearl said. “I’ve never had a losing season in coaching and there’s a chance that this team doesn’t finish above .500. But I can tell you that, and we’re still engaged. From that standpoint, I’m enjoying this group.”

There’s a very real chance Auburn (11-13, 3-8 Southeastern Conference) will break Pearl’s 20-for-20 string of consecutive winning seasons as a head coach, going back to Division II Southern Indiana.

Only nine other major college coaches have coached at least 10 seasons at that level without posting a losing record. This is Pearl’s 11th Division I season, including stints at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee.

Keeping that streak alive will be difficult. The Tigers have dropped back to back games to Mississippi and No. 24 Arkansas, and the road doesn’t get easier.

Auburn’s final seven regular-season games include trips to Georgia, No. 1 Kentucky, Texas A&M and Missouri.

Pearl knew he was facing a challenging season after his March hiring at Auburn, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003.

He inherited a team with only four available returning players, guards KT Harrell, Tahj Shamsid-Deen and Malcolm Canada and forward Jordon Granger. Transfers Antoine Mason, Cinmeon Bowers and K.C. Ross-Miller have bolstered the roster and represent three of the top four scorers and the top rebounder (Bowers). But center Matthew Atewe was lost for the season after leg surgery, Shamsid-Deen has been plagued by shoulder problems and Mason has also missed games with an injury.

The lack of depth has limited Pearl’s ability to press and maintain an uptempo style.

“We only brought back four of 13 scholarship guys in the fall,” he said. “That equates in football to like 26 scholarships of 85. Really difficult to play a team that returns so little the way I want them to play. It’s more important, as we try to put some pieces together, to play them the way they’re capable of playing and winning.”

Things are looking up for Pearl and the Tigers. His upcoming recruiting class is ranked 11th nationally by Rivals.com including non-binding verbal commitments from top 100 prospects in forwards Horace Spencer of Nevada and Danjel Purifoy from Virginia.

Guard Kareem Canty is sitting out the season after transferring from Marshall, where he averaged 16.3 points and 5.5 assists as a freshman.

Pearl has already sold the fans with promotional efforts including everything from charity events, to speaking to classrooms and even springing for hundreds of pizzas for students when he was hired.

The Tigers are drawing an average of 7,724 fans to Auburn Arena, the most for the Tigers since the 2001-02 season. The two sellouts have matched the total from the past three seasons combined when Auburn twice filled the arena for games against Kentucky.

Winning will take longer for the rebuilding program. Pearl said the support has been “way more than we deserve based on the outcomes.”

“I have won more, but I have had much more difficult times with other teams than I have here,” he said. “I am not worried about my record. I am worried about Auburn’s record, and I am worried about trying to get the most out of them. As I said at one point early on in the conference season, we won’t be favored for another game.”

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jzenor

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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