Auburn basketball's Bruce Pearl after winning SEC: 'So can we get hot? That's the deal'

AUBURN — After the cutting of nets comes the next priority.

The celebration will be brief for Auburn basketball, coach Bruce Pearl emphasized Saturday. It's postseason time.

"So can we get hot?" he said. "That's the deal."

No. 5 Auburn (27-4, 15-3 SEC) won its fourth SEC regular season championship in program history and enters the SEC Tournament with the top seed after an 82-71 win against South Carolina on Saturday. The Tigers are trying to ink themselves as a No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament.

Pearl has been in coaching for 40 years. He has made a number of deep postseason runs as a head coach, including Auburn's first Final Four in 2019.


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On Saturday, he briefly touched on Auburn's keys to success in March a few times.

"Our defense will carry us," he said. "But to win another championship, we're going to have to pick it up offensively."

Auburn freshman Jabari Smith is at the heart of the run. Smith's scoring involvement increased down the stretch. He averaged 24.8 points per game in the last six, bringing his regular season total to 17 points per game — fourth overall in the SEC and first among players who aren't guards.

"It's not about Jabari being more aggressive," Pearl said. "It's not. He's an unselfish player. He's a productive player. The reason why he's scoring like he is right now: When you come down the stretch and play against better teams or on the road, every player on the floor is challenged in their matchup. Jabari Smith is going to win his matchup every night. Not every one of our players is going to win their matchup.

"Therefore, when we play the best teams in our schedule, and right now you are late in the year, we count on him more because he will win that matchup."

Auburn's bench production has been a domino effect. It scored 19 in Saturday's win, but when the Tigers lost three straight road games in February, the bench averaged fewer than 10 points in 42 collective minutes of playing time. The rigors of March, Pearl said, require the bench to step up as a tournament progresses.

"It won't help us in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or the SEC Tournament, but it'll help us if we advance," Pearl said. "That's where the bench comes into play. It comes into play the second night and the third night. So the hardest one is going to be the first one, no matter who we line up with. That's going to be the hardest game to win."

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Bruce Pearl's keys to SEC, NCAA Tournament success for Auburn basketball