Bruce Pearl Press Conference: Recruiting and Maui Review

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    Head Coach Bruce Pearl

    Opening statement…
    “I’ll start off talking about the recruiting class. I first want to give my staff a shout-out. Wes Flanigan, Steven Pearl and Ira Bowman all contributed to this five-member class that really helps solidify our competiveness in the future. For me, the common denominator for these five guys is high character, hungry, humble, not entitled, grew up the hard way and a level of toughness to them. You put them all together and they’re pretty highly ranked, but I don’t think any one of them is all that concerned with their ranking. The positions are one, two, three, four, five as far as the spread where these guys can play. Some of these guys can play multiple positions. It’s a really good group and a really solid group. This was a year where we felt the quality of the footprint of high school basketball was very strong and very deep. We’ve been working for several years to take advantage of that deep class. We’re really pleased about each one of them.”

    On if he was looking for one, two, three, four, five positions when he set out for this class…
    “I anticipated we needed some needs across the board. In this day in age, you don’t know as much as you used to. You used to figure out who your seniors were and those were the guys you needed to replace. With transfers, testing the waters and things like that, it’s not quite as simple. In that sense, it provides us with real protection and adds to our depth.”

    On if he sees Jaylin Williams at three and Isaac Okoro at four…
    “They’re both interchangeable. I would probably flip that based on their size. I do think they can all play stretches of center, and primarily Jaylin [Williams] is a four/three and Isaac [Okoro] is anywhere he wants to play. Allen [Flanigan] is a three/two/one even. Tyrell [Jones] is a two/one, one/two. They give us really good flexibility. I think they can all guard. They’re all athletic. They’re all humble and hungry. It’s a good group.”

    On if Isaac Okoro will be a guy that he can lean on…
    “Isaac [Okoro] is that type of guy. Like I talked about Chuma [Okeke] being underrated, I don’t know that there are 15 players better than Isaac Okoro in the country. He’s got great versatility, great toughness, really attacks the rim and he can cover anybody. He can cover point guards and he can cover centers. He’ll be one of the more versatile defenders I’ve ever had.”

    On if this class keeps the momentum of the success going…
    “It was a very important class. It’s been one we’ve been planning on for several years. If you look back, archive-wise, the 2018 high school class of the southern part of the country just hasn’t been very deep. We knew that, so we’ve been planning on having to go and recruit the 2019 class heavily. When it’s a deep class, Auburn can do well. When it isn’t a deep class, we just haven’t been able to. It’s really hard to do. That’s why we try to load up in years where it’s good depth. You want to make sure you have scholarships in those years, and that’s what we did.”

    On if he was worried about losing commitment from any of the guys…
    “It’s never over until it’s over. I go back to the character. Every single one of these young guys gave me their word, and they followed through on it. I had no doubt that they would in a business where you certainly would. You’ve seen it all, but none of these guys were guys where I thought otherwise. It would’ve surprised me, based on themselves, their families and their coaches, if they didn’t follow through on their commitments. That’s just the kind of men that they are.”

    On Jaylin Williams at the four…
    “Again, I think Jaylin [Williams] and Isaac [Okoro] can both play three and four. Depending upon the matchups and things like that. I think they’re versatile. Depending on how much bigger, stronger, quicker and faster they evolve because they’re all freshmen, it’ll give us some flexibility.”

    On Babatunde Akingbola…
    “He’s a rim-protector. He’s the best rim-protector coming out of high school. He does just as good of a job, defensively, communicating. That’s a real strength. Your center is much like a mike linebacker, calling out signals and calling out plays. Babatunde [Akingbola] just does a great job of being communicative, aggressive and he defines himself by his ability to protect the rim and rebound the basketball. That’s who he is. He’s better offensively than he gives himself credit for, but that’s not how he defines his game.”

    On Tyrell Jones…
    “He’s a scoring point guard. He can pull it. He’s got great range. He can get in the lane. He can score. He’s a willing passer. All the guys have got great work ethic and are gym rats and things along those lines – tough covers – and he can get out there and guard. I don’t know if he’s as good defensively as Bryce is, but that would be really nice if he can continue to be identified with his ability to keep people in front and make plays.

    On Allen Flanigan…
    “Great upside. Allen is a terrific athlete. I think he’s going to be a really good shooter. He can guard lots of different positions. He gets off the floor quickly. He’s the youngest of the players that we recruited from a standpoint of his age and his development, but his best basketball is ahead of him. He’s improved a great deal.”

    On the length of Flanigan, Okoro, Williams…
    “As long as they can all move their feet and keep their guys in front, the length is a positive. And I think they can.”

    On preview of 2020 class…
    “Obviously, I can’t talk specifically. I think 2020 looks like a really good group, another deep group. As far as needs are concerned, we won’t know what we need until June because of just the way things are with graduation, with testing the waters, with (transfers). This is something that I just hope is not always the case. On average, there are three Division I players transferring a year per team. I have never seen anything like it in my life. I don’t like it. I’ve always looked at transferring as a positive thing – transferring up, transferring to improve yourself. I had to transfer a lot of times in my career to be able to move up. Sometimes it was transferring down to move up, on a couple of occasions. It’s the land of opportunity, but I do think that way too often everybody is worried about making the right decision instead of about making the decisions that they make work – in life and in college basketball. That’s why I told Marques Bolden, the kid at Duke, how proud I was of the way he stuck it out. Every year, Coach K brought in somebody better than him and every year he went to the bench, but every year he kept improving. And now it’s his time. He’s a big factor. He’s improved a great deal. He was patient, and I hope he gets rewarded.”

    On takeaways from Maui…
    “I give Damon Davis, our strength and conditioning coach, and our trainer, Clark Pearson, a lot of credit. We were in good enough condition to be able to play three games in three days. We trained really hard this summer and this fall with back-to-back-to-backs at times. And our big stress was ‘Look, we’ve got to win at least two games.’ I know I said that to you guys two weeks before the tournament, and you may have stopped and said, ‘I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about. What does that exactly mean?’ Whether we won the first one or the last one, it didn’t matter. We had to win two games to have a successful trip. It didn’t matter who we were playing against. So I had that planted in our guys’ minds. It was funny because I was listening to Seth Greenberg on set talking to one of his hosts. The host could not get over that we were playing in the third-place game, for example. We weren’t playing in the third-place game. Maybe we were physically. We were playing against Arizona on a neutral site. You talk about an opportunity to get a win over a Pac-12 contender on a neutral site and what that’s going to mean for our RPI, our tournament résumé. Whether we finish third, fourth or fifth didn’t matter. So really preparing the guys for three games in three days. They showed the physical and mental toughness and the conditioning to be able to play that way. I thought we played hard all three games. I didn’t think we played well at all against Duke. Duke had a lot to do with that. But I was really disappointed in how we played. I thought we made a lot of really bad decisions. We took a lot of quick shots. We didn’t execute and, as a result, didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to make something special happen like beat the No. 1 team in the country. We didn’t deserve it. That’s coaching. I did not have them playing as well as they could’ve played in order to beat that team. I thought we played pretty well against Xavier and Arizona. I thought we played great against Arizona. I was really glad to see the bench come off and play well against Arizona. That was key. The fact that J’Von [McCormick], Malik [Dunbar], Horace [Spencer] and Austin [Wiley] had such good performances against Arizona and, in particular the backcourt, we really needed J’Von and Malik to play well, and they both had terrific games. For us to be a great team, that needs to continue. It was good to get Austin three games in a row, and he showed no signs of any kind of soreness, other than normal soreness. So for him to play three games in a row was great. You could see the presence that he gives us in there rebounding-wise, offensively – what a target he is. Most of his rust is actually on the defensive end, and so we’ll work for him to continue to become more effective defensively, more dominant. We played against different styles, and we were able to have to use a lot that was in the offensive and defensive playbook. There was enough there to be able to move forward.”

    On the bench’s response to his challenge after the game against Duke…
    “I am glad they responded. I was critical and was just being honest. It is what it is. I thought those guys took the challenge, stepped up and played with confidence. It makes us a better team. All those guys on the bench are really highly thought of by our team. They are all very well-liked and respected. They could be starters at a lot of other programs. There were a lot of guys that felt really good about those guys coming off the bench and playing well. It helped our team chemistry.

    On the defense…
    “I thought we created a little bit of an identity for our defense. We were really good against Arizona. We weren’t very good against Duke. We let Duke do the things that they do and couldn’t stop them. As a result, they exposed us. I thought against both Xavier and Arizona the defense was really good. The effort was good. I think we’re going to get better. I don’t know what the results are going to be, but I know this team can really improve in a lot of areas.

    On the new NET ranking system that dropped…
    “I don’t care for the margin of victory thing as much because I don’t want there to be any kind of formula that encourages you to run the score up or worry about whether I can put my bench in at the end of the game or not. That’s not going to affect what I do. We’re going to play. When it’s time to get the bench in, we’ll get the bench in. If we win by fewer than we’re supposed to win by, unless it becomes a situation where on the bubble and every point counts, I don’t know. I don’t think the formula is too terribly different than what it was.”

    On what Jared Harper and Bryce Brown did for their futures at the Maui Invitational…
    “I think what they did – and Chuma [Okeke] had his moments as well as Austin, this was the first time some professional scouts were able to get their eyes on him in a while – they got a chance to show what they’re capable of and how they can compete at a higher level with some good results and some weaknesses exposed. Coach K, he probably never laid eyes on Jared, so therefore he was impressed by some things he saw, whereas we’re not as impressed because we lay eyes on him all the time. Those individuals, as well as our team, established themselves – at this point anyways – as being guys to watch for. Our team is something to watch for. We’ll see what we do to take advantage of that opportunity and what those individuals do to take advantage of the position that they’ve put themselves in.”

    On Bryce Brown breaking the career 3-point record at Auburn…
    “I think coaches get way too much credit for things when they’re good and probably too much blame when they’re not. Those guys are self-made players. Yes, it took Coach Davis, the strength and conditioning staff, the nutritionist, our trainer and my assistant coaches to spend time with them and their dads being in the gym with him. It really took them having the discipline to work on their handling and work on their shots, perfect their craft and they’re the ones that deserve all the credit. I go back to where they were ranked as recruits. They weren’t highly ranked recruits. It’s not about that we coaches them up. It’s about what they did. They took advantage of the opportunity. To beat Wesley Person, one of the all-time great shooters in college basketball as well as the NBA, a great shooter for Bryce to pass. It was very historical. He’s not done yet. He’s got a long way to go, but Bryce defended for three-straight games [in Maui]. He was the best on-ball defender in Maui. He rarely took possessions off. I get mad at Bryce when he does, but he didn’t for three-straight games. I was really, really impressed. He’s an important piece to what we do.

    On Saint Peter’s…
    “Shaheen Holloway was a great player and a fixture at Seton Hall for all those years. A great story about a great player and a very good, loyal assistant coach getting his opportunity to be a head coach now a putting his hands on his own program. They play fast, they’re good in transition and they’re real good in ball-screen offense. It’ll be another good opportunity for us. Saint Peter’s is not as strong as the three teams we saw in Maui, so this is going to be as much about us and our growth and development and the different things they’re going to challenge us to do. I thought that was one things that was pleasing to me was Xavier, Duke and Arizona all played three different kind of offenses. They all had some different defensive things that they threw at us and we were able to handle it all. That was really positive.”

    Malik Dunbar, G/F, Sr.
    On how he likes his role on the team…
    “I love my role. It gives us an extra boost off the bench. I’m fine with whatever spot coach puts me at honestly, as long as I’m on the floor.”

    On the confidence that Bruce Pearl has in the bench players…
    “We know what we can all do. We’re in the same gym every day. We know what we’re all capable of. I feel like we have no drop-offs. Everyone can go in and do the same thing, so it doesn’t matter. We’re going to play hard regardless.”

    On how he proved himself against Arizona…
    “I feel like the Arizona game was really a redemption game from the Duke game. We played our game.”

    On how the Maui trip helped the chemistry of the team early on in the season…
    “We’re already like brothers. We went over to Hawaii as like a family trip. It really helped us experience a whole different world. It helped us.”

    On Austin Wiley and Samir Doughty…
    “They’re a great asset to the team. They’re already doing everything they’re supposed to be doing.”

    On his favorite part of the Maui trip outside of basketball…
    “The beach. It was really peaceful out there. I liked to sit on the beach and just listen to the ocean. That was probably the best part.”

    On his dunk against Arizona…
    “I get a lot of love off of that dunk. I got some more coming.”

    On his mindset when he comes off the bench…
    “Just helping my team. Whether that’s on offense or defense. I just play my hardest every time I get out there.”

    On if he feels that he’s taken on a leadership role…
    “Yes. I bring the energy. I feel like that’s my biggest role on the team, just to get us started.”

    On if his role of bringing the energy comes naturally or he tries to bring it…
    “That’s just me being myself and enjoying being out there with my teammates. That’s all.”

    On if he learned anything about the team during the Maui trip…
    “I feel like we played hard. We showed that we aren’t going to give up. We haven’t been down before that Duke game, but we showed that we aren’t going to fall apart. We didn’t give up and we just kept fighting. I learned that we’re really going to stick with each other with the ups and the downs. That helped us out, too.”

    On defense…
    “I feel like we’re good now. In practice [Coach Pearl] emphasizes that defense is important and it’s what will make us win games. We really take pride in our defense.”

    On Danjel Purifoy coming back…
    “I feel like we’re a selfless team. We don’t really care about the minutes. I feel like we aren’t going to fall apart. Danjel [Purifoy] can’t do anything but help our team. Everyone’s goal at the end of the day is to win basketball games.”

    @AuburnEinstein

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