Now they’ll face off for the first time since 2011.
Pearl always gave the Gators problems when he was at Tennessee. His teams, even if it wasn’t their best season, always challenged some of Billy Donovan’s best teams in Gainesville. In his career, Pearl is 8-5 against the Gators. Florida’s back-to-back national championship teams went 1-3 against Pearl and Tennessee.
Yet Donovan was still happy to have Pearl back in the SEC. The energy that he brings is infectious, and his biggest concern is the well being of college basketball, especially within the league. Donovan spoke to Pearl when he was considering the Auburn job, and Pearl raved about the administration’s commitment to the program and thought he could play an important role in bringing it to prominence in the SEC.
“For people that are looking for some excitement and some enthusiasm, he’s a guy that brings a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” Donovan said. “I think he’s good for the league because he’s had a lot of success at Tennessee, a lot of success in this league. He’s a very, very good basketball coach. I’m happy for him that he’s back in coaching because I think there was a time when all that came to an end for him at Tennessee that he wasn’t really sure if he wanted to go back into coaching. I think all the way around at this point in time at his life, this is a good step for him and a good place for him to be.”
Auburn isn’t to the level the Volunteers were under Pearl. They’re playing much better than early in the season, winning six of their last seven games, and bringing a 9-6 record to Gainesville on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN2).
"They're going to play a certain style, and anytime you've got a new coach coming in, there's going to be some time and some transition that those kids are going to through,” Donovan said. “Bruce has got a system and a style that's been very effective, very successful.”
It’s a veteran Auburn team, using a starting lineup with three seniors and two juniors. K.T. Harrell leads the team with 17 points per game, and in two games last season against Florida, the senior averaged 16 points, four rebounds and 3.5 assists. The difference in this year’s team and last year’s team for the Tigers is a player in the post. Last year, guards Chris Denson, Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Harrell were essentially on their own.
Pearl changed that this season, adding Cinmeon Bowers to the team. The 6-7, 278-pound big man is averaging 13.7 points and 11.3 rebounds this year. Last season, Patric Young would have made perfect sense to hold up against Bowers, but the Gators don’t have a physical presence in the paint this year and could be challeneged by Bowers.
“(KT) Harrell last year was one of the leading scoring in the country,” Donovan siad. “(Cinmeon) Bowers is a tremendous rebounder and scorer from the front court. Some of those guys are back from last year. Some of the guys are new. I think this a team under Bruce that will continue to get better and grow."
Pearl wants his teams to push the pace and play fast, something Florida enjoys, too. Donovan said he believes there’s a misconception with Pearl that his teams always try to run but struggle in half-court offense, but he said the film tells a different story.
“They play very, very fast, but once they get in the half-court they do a very good job of executing,” Donovan said. “In a lot of situations, the shot clock is going to get down to 10, 12 seconds. They’re going to run their offense and get into whatever action they want to run at that time.”