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No. 22 Auburn goes from hot mess to 1 of hottest teams

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

By JOHN ZENOR

AP Sports Writer

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers have gone from looking like one of college basketball's biggest messes to one of the season's best surprises.

The 22nd-ranked Tigers (15-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) are ranked for the first time in nearly 15 years and riding a 13-game winning streak that includes back-to-back wins over Top 25 teams. Only No. 2 West Virginia (15 games) has a longer active winning streak.

It's a remarkable surge for a program that a few months ago was refunding dozens of season tickets, rocked by a scandal that cost coach Bruce Pearl his top assistant and, to this point, two of his best players. The buzz has changed from Pearl's job security to a potential NCAA Tournament run.

"You notice it coming in and out of church or walking in and out of a store," Pearl said. "People are excited and they're taking definitely taking notice. You do notice it on campus too, walking around campus. Winning does that. I don't notice a lot of difference in my team and in my locker room, interestingly. They're pretty much the same. But, yeah, the community, it has a different feel to it. There's joy."

There was little cause for joy entering the season. Associate head coach Chuck Person was fired while facing fraud, conspiracy and bribery charges in a wide-ranging FBI investigation for allegedly trying to steer Auburn players toward a financial advisor once they turn pro.

Forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley, two of the team's top three players, have been held out all season amid an internal review into the program. The NCAA said Thursday that Wiley won't be eligible again until next season for violations self-reported by Auburn.

Two staffers have also been placed on indefinite leave.

The remaining Tigers have done quite well.

Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper have led a surge into the best record in the SEC going into Saturday's game at Mississippi State.

The Tigers expect to fill at least two buses taking students to the game.

They've opened SEC play with double-digit wins over both No. 24 Tennessee and Arkansas , which was also ranked at the time. Auburn overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Mississippi Tuesday night in front of the season's first sellout crowd at Auburn Arena.

The Tigers are off to their best start since opening the 1999-2000 season 16-1.

Even at full-strength, this start would have exceeded most expectations for a team picked to finish ninth in the SEC. Now, the Tigers are hoping for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003. They hadn't cracked the Top 25 since Jan. 20, 2003 before this week.

Auburn has only one senior and the team's 12 underclassmen matches Kentucky for most in the nation.

Heron has followed up a strong freshman season by averaging 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. Brown's 15.6-point average is more than double his scoring from last season. Harper is scoring 12.6 points a game and ranks third in the SEC in assists.

Desean Murray, a transfer from Presbyterian College is also scoring in double digits (11.2 ppg) while Anfernee McLemore is the SEC's top shot blocker.

Pearl has more depth than ever at Auburn even without Wiley and Purifoy. Nine players are averaging 12-plus minutes.

But he says his roster remains undersized and has little margin for error.

"The point is, if we don't play well, we're going to lose," Pearl said. "We didn't play well (against Ole Miss), and we were fortunate to win. So let's recognize it, be grateful for it and realize that's not going to happen very often. To go down to Mississippi State, we're going to have to have to play great to have a chance to win.

"We've played a lot of great basketball. We're capable of it. I don't mind putting that pressure on. I want to put that pressure on them, because that's the reality of it."

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Updated January 12, 2018

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