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August 25, 2014

THE WHIPAROUND: An ascension


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AUBURN | That didn't take long.

Bruce Pearl's first true recruiting class took shape during the span of 72 hours this weekend. And this was no patchwork group.

First came word Friday that four-star small forward Danjel Purifoy, known on the basketball circuit as "Kevon," committed to the Tigers. On Sunday morning, four-star power forward Horace Spencer followed suit. Both are Top 100 players.

The rally continued this morning when junior college shooting guard T.J. Dunans also committed to the Tigers. Though Rivals.com hasn't yet assessed JUCO players, Dunans' height (6-foot-5), scoring ability (he averaged 22.8 points per game as a freshman) and long arms (which augment Pearl's full-court press) make him a perfect fit for Auburn's new paradigm.

This couldn't be going any better.

The credit must start with Jay Jacobs, an orthodox man who used an unorthodox approach to consider Pearl in the first place. Pearl's reputation was tarnished after some missteps at Tennessee and the show-cause penalty created an unseemly obstacle many athletic directors would have considered a deal-breaker.

Jacobs decided his dilapidated program needed something special to revive the glory of decades past. So he hired the most qualified man to engineer that revival -- warts and all.

Pearl has approached this difficult project with unusual joie de vivre. He's working with Under Armour rather than against it. He's embracing Auburn's football-first mentality by developing (and exhibiting) genuine interest in Gus Malzahn's program. He refuses to allow the basketball program's weak track record dictate the caliber of player that will populate this roster three months or three years from now.

He's building Auburn is his image.

It's been mesmerizing to watch.

Still, Pearl isn't doing this alone. Inside observers marvel at Chuck Person's ability to get through to players, their families, coaches, handlers. His reputation as an NBA player and Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach has been more impactful than even the most optimistic forecast. He engenders trust so easily. He doesn't have to describe his ability to develop players because basketball people already know.

Spencer, the celebrated power forward who committed Sunday, is from Philadelphia. So is Auburn assistant coach Harris Adler, who was working at LaSalle University in Philly this time last year. That's not a coincidence.

Tony Jones, Pearl's long-time lieutenant, served as Pearl's eyes and ears when the show-cause penalty prevented Pearl from seeing and interacting with prospects. How did Auburn gain traction with Top 100 players when Pearl was barred from even scouting them on tape?

Jones had a lot to do with it.

Auburn now has a synergy that cannot be overstated. Pearl's enthusiasm breeds optimism through every corner of the program, which represents a massive change. When Pearl arrived to work Sunday morning at midnight, his entire team -- walk-ons and all -- was there to welcome him.

They didn't have to be there. They wanted to be there.

They always want to be there.

Pearl first five months on the job haven't included a single misstep. He's managed to make Auburn fans care about basketball on the eve of what could be a truly memorable season on the football field. That's not easy.

Of course, he doesn't like easy. Pearl chose to sign with Auburn knowing the task would be the biggest challenge of his career. Yet he knows deep down that building programs is what he does best, what he is meant to do.

This is what greatness looks like in its infancy.

Savor the rise.

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