SAN DIEGO (AP) — Bruce Pearl and Auburn's basketball program have been under a cloud since before the start of the season. Even though they faced investigations, the loss of an assistant coach, the ineligibility of two key players, or even Pearl's minor run-in with an opposing strength coach last week at the SEC tournament, Pearl led the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Bruce Pearl and Auburn's basketball program have been under a cloud since before the start of the season.
Even though they faced investigations, the loss of an assistant coach, the ineligibility of two key players, or even Pearl's minor run-in with an opposing strength coach last week at the SEC tournament, Pearl led the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003.
For Pearl, the bigger concern is how the fourth-seeded Tigers will play Friday against No. 13 seed Charleston in the first round of the Midwest Region. His team has learned to live within the chaos surrounding the program and somehow thrived despite it.
"You go through a process with an internal investigation or answering questions from the NCAA, you know, you only do that for a few hours, or whatever. That's it," Pearl said. "Then you move on and go back to focusing on the things that you are at Auburn to do as a student-athlete. It doesn't dominate our process because it doesn't dominate our time. The kids had to go through the process. They went through the process and they're all certified as eligible and we moved on."
The FBI and NCAA investigations have seemed secondary of late. Auburn (25-7) has been trying to celebrate winning a share of the SEC regular-season title while also dealing with the loss of forward Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending ankle injury in mid-February. That's left the Tigers with just eight players in their rotation and even more of the load has fallen on guards Bryce Brown and Mustapha Heron.
"I can tell you that we've overcome those things and we ended up having a pretty good season. We have much more to show and much more to accomplish," Brown said.
Charleston (26-7) is in the NCAAs for the first time since 1999 after winning the Colonial Athletic Association title. They have just one NCAA win, coming in 1997 as a No. 12 seed.
Here are other things to watch in the Midwest Region:
UNDER PRESSURE: Michigan State's Cassius Winston was honest about the expectations facing the third-seeded Spartans heading into their first-round game with No. 14 seed Bucknell.
"We're in our mindset where if it's not a national championship, then it's probably a bust for this team," Winston said.
The expectations are always high in East Lansing, especially for a team that features stars like Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Joshua Langford. Throughout the season the Spartans have shown they're worthy of championship consideration — at least as long as they avoid rival Michigan, which beat them twice.
Bucknell was the champion of the Patriot League and enters the tournament having won 18 of its past 19 games. Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said the message for his team is they only need to be better for one day.
"We know it's going to be a great challenge. Michigan State's got one of the best teams in the country. I think we've got a pretty good team, too. So we'll go out there and see what happens," Davis said. "We don't need to be better than them for four games or four days. It's only 40 minutes."
FOND MEMORIES: It's been 31 years since TCU last won an NCAA Tournament game. Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon remembers it quite well since he played in the game.
"I remember the travel. I remember my dad being there, my uncle being there, who is no longer with us. I remember going to Charlotte," Dixon said.
The Horned Frogs will be trying to erase three decades without a tournament win when the No. 6 seed faces 11th-seeded Syracuse on Friday in Detroit. TCU went 21-11 overall and finished fifth in the Big 12, earning the school's first NCAA bid since 1998.
A year ago in Dixon's first season back at his alma mater, TCU barely missed the tournament before making a run to the NIT title. Dixon took Pittsburgh to the NCAAs 11 times in 13 seasons before returning to TCU.
"We got a good group and we're lucky," Dixon said. "Got high-character guys in our senior class that took to less playing time, less scoring, sacrificing. But the end result was an NIT championship, which was huge for us."
Dixon is very familiar with his opponent in the first round. During his time at Pittsburgh, Dixon went 15-6 against Syracuse, becoming one of the few coaches to have that level of success against Syracuse under Jim Boeheim.
"I think this is a much better offensive team than most of the other teams he had at Pittsburgh," Boeheim said. "They were more defense. We got hurt more when we lost to Pittsburgh on the defensive end."
TRANSFER U: No. 12 seed New Mexico State is a popular pick to upset No. 5 seed Clemson. The WAC champions are a group of mostly transfers playing under first-year coach Chris Jans. The Aggies have seven players on the roster who have transferred to the school, led by Zach Lofton and his 19.8 points per game.
Jans found a way to make it work. The Aggies (28-5) lost consecutive games just once all season and own wins over Miami, Davidson and Illinois.
"We knew he knew what he was talking about," forward Jemerrio Jones said. "He came from a winning program. We just bought into him."
Clemson (23-9) hasn't been the same team since the loss of forward Dante Grantham to a season-ending knee injury. The Tigers are just 7-6 since Grantham was hurt in late January, including a three-game losing streak in the middle of February. The Tigers can still be dangerous and took Virginia to the wire in the ACC semifinals.
AP Sports Writers Noah Trister and Larry Lage contributed to this report.
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