AUBURN — While it was likely never a secret to begin with, the formula for an Auburn win starts and ends at point guard.
And Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl made sure to tell reporters Monday that the equation isn’t something being solved in an academic think tank anytime soon.
“Jared (Harper) plays well, we got a chance to win. Jared doesn’t play well, we don’t,” Pearl said.
This is not the time that Pearl wants to worry about his point guard. And to a certain extent, he isn’t concerned but understands Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC) is in the precarious position of needing a superstar effort out of Harper for the Tigers to secure a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Auburn needs only one win (or a Tennessee loss) when the Tigers play at Arkansas on Tuesday to clinch a title, which would be their first since 1999.
“That’s not putting too much pressure on the young man, that’s the position he plays,” Pearl said. “He’s the quarterback. I mean, I can only think of a couple games all year long where he has not played well in. Maybe Temple. Maybe at Alabama. Maybe South Carolina and at Florida. Gee, we lost those four games.”
Pearl knows other coaches, especially ones with time to prepare in SEC, know guard Bryce Brown can find his shooting touch and Mustapha Heron can continue to lead Auburn in scoring but that’s not a guarantee the Tigers will pick up a win. It’s Harper who is at the top of those pre-game scouting reports.
“Jared Harper, in my opinion, makes them go offensively,” Florida head coach Mike White said Saturday. “It’s his ability to make decisions off of ball screens in space and get his own shot, draw fouls, shoot it from the logo and get other guys shots as well.”
After Auburn’s 90-71 win over Alabama, Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson — a former point guard on a NBA championship team at San Antonio — said he recognizes the burden that is on the 5-foot-10 sophomore every time Auburn takes the floor.
“Well, I love his confidence, and I love his game. Against South Carolina and the last time we played Alabama, he wasn't the best point guard on the floor. (Wednesday night) he was (and) you can see the result,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of pressure on Jared. He has gotten a lot of burden. Break pressure, make plays, make shots, defend and he was terrific tonight. I do love his confidence. He's got great ability.”
With a season that started with losing two of arguably its five best returning players before the opening exhibition game, Pearl has spoken throughout the season with the motto of this roster not having any room for error. So as Harper was struggling Saturday night with more turnovers than assists, only eight points and allowing his opposing point guard Chris Chiozza to create 12 assists, Pearl knew picking up a road win against a desperate Florida team would be compromised.
“I don’t know of many football teams that win big games without their quarterback playing well,” Pearl said Monday. “You tell me. So the key to beating Auburn is to stop Jared Harper. You all got that? You can put that out there. He’s one of our best players so it goes without saying.”
For Auburn to clinch a new league title banner in the home arena, the Tigers must defeat an Arkansas squad that has won four of its last five games on its senior night in Bud Walton Arena. Auburn defeated Arkansas 88-77 on Jan. 6 where Harper had 14 points and eight assists in a game in which Arkansas never led once. However, after two straight disappointing efforts on the road mixed in with an extraordinary performance at home against Alabama, Pearl must now take his “quarterback” to one of the nation’s most historically intimidating environments in Fayetteville, Ark.
“Now, South Carolina had a lot to do with (Harper) struggling. Florida had a lot to do with him struggling and so yeah, that’s an issue,” Pearl said.