Five years ago, following a summer tour of Italy, Horace Spencer recalled the value of the experience for the 2017-18 Auburn basketball team — the one that went on to win the program’s first SEC regular-season title in nearly two decades.
The trip, which spanned 10 days and included four games against foreign competition, was a foundational experience for that Auburn team, which was the most successful of Pearl’s early tenure on the Plains.
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“Italy made the culture for the team; It made it more of a family, ”Spencer said seven months later, as Auburn prepared for its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Pearl.
This offseason, Pearl is taking his team overseas again. The Tigers are headed to Israel from July 31-Aug. 10 and will play three games during their tour, including two against the Israeli U-20 national team and one against the Israeli senior national team. The NCAA permits programs to take such a trip once every four years, and Pearl wanted to take advantage of that opportunity as his team reloads its roster coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history.
Fresh off another SEC regular-season title, and a season in which the Tigers climbed to the top of the AP poll for the first time in program history and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Auburn is undergoing a bit of a roster retool heading into next season. Gone are National Freshman of the Year Jabari Smith and National Defensive Player of the Year Walker Kessler, the Tigers’ All-America frontcourt starters and projected first-round NBA Draft picks. So, too, is veteran wing Devan Cambridge, a rotation mainstay who transferred to Arizona State.
In their places, Auburn is bringing in — so far — four new pieces. The Tigers signed four-star guard / wing Chance Westry and three-star point guard Tre Donaldson to the 2022 class back in November. They added five-star combo forward Yohan Traore, the third-highest rated player in program history, to that group at the end of March. Then, a little more than a week ago, Auburn added Morehead State transfer Johni Broome, one of the top big men in the portal, to the fold.
The Tigers still have one open scholarship spot to fill, with all eyes on five-star 2022 forward Julian Phillips, who is set to make his announcement Thursday.
With or without Phillips, Auburn’s roster will have a significantly different feel next season, even as the Tigers return key pieces in KD Johnson, Wendell Green Jr., Zep Jasper, Allen Flanigan, Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell and Chris Moore. It’s a rapid reload for a roster that could potentially be one of the most talented in program history from top to bottom.
“Whether it’s reloading or rebuilding, that’s going to be for the eye of the beholder,” Pearl said. “I just think the summer is going to be really good competition – just like last summer. It was good. I think it gives us a chance – the kids are going to get better. They’re going to make each other better. We need to get better. “
The timing of the Tigers’ trip to Israel, then, is no coincidence. Pearl called the opportunity to travel overseas for such an experience “huge” for Auburn.
“That’s part of the timing – when you have four or five new guys coming in,” Pearl said. “The opportunity to live together, travel together, see new things together, learn the Bible together, learn history together. That’s why we’re doing it, as much as anything. This one, the competition is going to be really good. “
Along with using the trip as a team-building experience – on and off the court – in preparation for next season, Pearl hopes there is more for the program to get out of its overseas tour this summer. He believes there is an opportunity for the games to be broadcast stateside in some manner, given the time of year, with most major sports leagues out of season.
“In the month of August, there’s not a lot of live sports programming out there once the NBA playoffs are over,” Pearl said. “That’s why the TBT or the different 3-on-3s or – they’re being televised because they don’t have much other content. We think this could be a content event. Now, look: I’m taking the team over to bond, get better, train this summer and get closer to God and the history. But at the same time, if we could also bring this back home, it’d be great visibility for our kids. Israel is a wonderful place to play professional basketball. “
Peal, who is Jewish and has an appreciation for the quality of basketball played in Israel at the national and professional levels, hopes his program’s trip this summer can also plant the seeds for a future annual showcase. While Auburn and other teams can take overseas offseason trips once every four years, per NCAA rules, Pearl has toyed with the idea of helping create an annual tournament in which two to four college teams make the trip to Israel and compete against each other and against. local competition overseas each August.
“Even if Auburn won’t be in it, I’m going to work towards creating that tournament,” Pearl said. “Our going over there is sort of setting the groundwork for something like that – which I think is a more meaningful trip than almost any place in the world you can go to.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter Tomas_Verde.