By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Bruce Pearl will always have a connection to the Iowa men’s basketball program, and for the next four days, he will really be connected to the Hawkeyes.
Give the NCAA selection committee some credit for matching No. 9 seed Iowa against Pearl’s eighth-seeded Auburn Tigers in an NCAA Tournament first-round game, because for one, it’s an intriguing matchup on paper, and because of Pearl’s connection to the Iowa program where he was an assistant coach at Iowa under Tom Davis from 1986 to 1992.
Current Iowa assistant coach, and former Hawkeye player, Matt Gatens, also got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant under Pearl at Auburn for two seasons from 2017-19.
Iowa fans might not like the game being played on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama, which is only about two hours from the Auburn campus because it’ll be sort feel like another road game for the Hawkeyes.
However, Alabama is also playing in Birmingham, so it’s reasonable to think with how Alabama and Auburn fans despise each other that Iowa might gain some local support.
As for the matchup itself, Iowa relies heavily on the 3-point shot, sometimes maybe even too much, while Auburn is among the best in the country at defending the three.
Pearl’s teams are always athletic and play extremely hard, and his current team is no exception.
“I think the one thing is they play hard, and they compete” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Sunday when asked what is one thing that distinguishes Auburn under Pearl. “They’re athletic. It’s hard to do what he’s done. They’ve consistently been good, so that’s a credit to how he’s built the program.”
The 62-year old Pearl is in his ninth season as the Auburn head coach and he has led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament in four of the past six seasons. It would have been five of the last six seasons if the 2020 NCAA Tournament hadn’t been canceled due to outbreak of the Covid-19 global pandemic since Auburn finished 25-6 that season.
The high point was the 2018-19 season when Auburn advanced to the NCAA Final four and finished with a 30-10 record.
Auburn also to climbed to No. 1 in the polls last season for the first time ever and finished 28-6 overall.
Pearl has dealt with his share of adversity and controversy at multiple coaching stops along the way, including at Iowa where he was part of a recruiting scandal involving Illinois.
Iowa and Illinois both were recruiting power forward Deon Thomas, a top high school player from Chicago but the Fighting Illini ultimately won the battle.
After losing Thomas to Illinois, Pearl called Thomas and recorded a phone conversation in which Thomas reportedly indicated that he had beem offered an SUV and cash from an Illinois assistant coach.
The NCAA launched an investigation and Thomas later denied that he had been given an SUV or money.
Illinois was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case, but the investigation found other violations that led to Illinois being cited for a “lack of institutional control” and as result was punished with several recruiting restrictions and a one-year postseason ban.
There has been bad blood between the two Big Ten border rivals ever since.
Pearl also has been the focus of NCAA investigations while coaching at Tennessee and at Auburn.
He was fired as the Tennessee head coach on March 21, 2011 for rule violations, and was then given a three-year show-cause penalty for reportedly lying to the NCAA.
On August 30, 2011, Pearl accepted a position as Vice President of Marketing for Knoxville wholesaler H.T. Hackney.
But it was only a matter of time before he returned to coaching at that came when Auburn hired Pearl to replace Tony Barbee on March 18, 2014.
The Auburn program was in rough shape when Pearl took over and finished with records of 15-20 and 11-20 in his first two seasons.
By his fourth season, however, Auburn won a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title, finished 26-8 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
Pearl has certainly made his share of mistakes while climbing the coaching ladder, but he also has won at each of his stops.
He started to repair his image at Southern Indiana, where he compiled a 231-46 record over nine seasons.
He then spent four season at Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he compiled an 86-38 record before accepting the Tennessee job in 2005.
Thursday’s game will be the first time Iowa and Auburn have faced each other in men’s basketball, and the first time that Fran McCaffery has coached against Pearl.
But they are far from being strangers.
“I’ve known him for years. I consider him a friend,” Fran McCaffery said of Pearl. “A great guy. I’ve known him since he was here. You guys know him. He’s got a great personality. I enjoy our interactions. We did a thing at the Final Four a couple years ago.
“So, yeah, good guy.”
Iowa and Auburn both have had their ups and downs this season as evidenced by their records of 19-13 and 20-12, respectively.
Iowa has lost its last two games to Ohio State (73-69) in the Big Ten Tournament this past Thursday, and to Nebraska (81-77) on Senior Day on March 5 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I think a lot of guys just weren’t happy with our overall performance at the Big Ten Tournament and this last week,” said Iowa junior forward Kris Murray. “So, I think we’ve just got to take that anger out next week on both sides of the ball.”
It wasn’t mentioned at Sunday’s press conference that Iowa’s last trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 was way back in 1999 in Tom Davis’s final season as head coach.
But should the Hawkeyes defeat Auburn on Thursday, that storyline would become front and center.
This will be Iowa’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and its seventh under Fran McCaffery.
Iowa has now qualified for seven of the last nine NCAA Tournaments, and is one of 10 teams nationally to make the last four NCAA Tournaments, and one of three Big Ten teams (Purdue, Michigan State).
“It’s such a tremendous accomplishment,” Fran McCaffery said Sunday. “It’s so hard to get there, especially in our league. It’s so incredibly balanced. And there’s so many real good teams across the country, number of Power Five conferences and a number of great teams in other leagues.
“So, just to see you name come up, I think everybody that plays college basketball hope that happens at some point. And if it happens more than once, that’s even better. So, it’s time to go to work.”
Fran McCaffery was asked on Sunday if Gatens would have the scout for the Auburn game, given his connections to the Auburn program.
“That’s probably a good guess,” Fran McCaffery said.
One of the challenges with being either an eight or nine seed is a potential matchup with a No. 1 seed in the next round.
The other two teams in Iowa’s first-weekend bracket are top-seeded Houston (31-3) and No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky (22-12).
Iowa was a five seed last season, and a two seed in 2021.
“It’s a lot different being a eight, nine versus like we were a five or a two,” said Iowa senior guard Connor McCaffery. “You kind of feel like you’re playing with house money a little bit.
“It’s not like you’re playing a game where you feel like you’re supposed to win, or have to win. So, I’m really excited.”