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March 18, 2014

Starting Five: Pearl a bold move for Auburn

THE RIVALS150: Class of 2014 - Class of 2015

This week, we waited a day to do our usual Starting Five and it turned out to be a good decision. Tuesday morning, Auburn hired Bruce Pearl in what could turn out to be a big move. The Pearl hire leads this week's topics for discussion.

Can Pearl turn it around at Auburn?

Let's face it, everybody involved with and who follows college basketball knew that it was only a matter of time before Bruce Pearl landed on his feet. All season long he has been rumored to be a candidate for several projected openings, and Auburn was one of them. Stuck in the basement of the SEC, the Tigers had to do something bold if they wanted to turn around their fortunes. The hiring of Pearl, who lost his job at Tennessee due to NCAA infractions, is bold.

Pearl has been a lighting rod for discussion among coaches and fans for quite some time now. Whether it be because of what happened at Tennessee (where a photo of current Ohio State point guard and former Vol commit Aaron Craft attending a barbecue at Pearl's house started an investigation that led to his firing), turning in Illinois over alleged improprieties in their recruitment of Deon Thomas when he was an assistant at Iowa in the late 80's, or his bombastic personality, Pearl gets people talking. But for the most part, people who have been around Pearl love him, and he has been incredibly well-liked by the fans, alumni, boosters and players at all of his stops.

Most importantly, Pearl is a proven winner at every stop he's ever made. At Tennessee, Pearl took the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament during each of his six years as head coach. Before that he took Wisconsin-Milwaukee to two NCAA appearances, and he won an Division II title at Southern Indiana. Right now, what Auburn needs more than anything else is a proven winner, and there is no way to argue that Pearl isn't a habitual winner.

Because of his experience in Knoxville and the SEC, Pearl is already intimately familiar with recruiting the region, and given previous results it is hard to envision anything but success from him and his staff -- which will almost certainly include longtime assistant and recruiting ace Tony Jones -- on the recruiting trail.

In the grand scheme of things, Pearl was going to be hired somewhere, and he was more than likely going to be successful at the program that hired him. Auburn was very smart to get an agreement in place early and make sure that his next stop was on the Plains.

Will he or won't he?

One of the most intriguing players who is still available in the class of 2014 is a kid that most American fans don't know much about. However, many know about his father. I'm talking about Domantas Sabonis, the son of legendary big man Arvydas Sabonis.

Currently, Sabonis plays professionally in Spain for Unicaja Málaga. He is a 6-foot-10 lefty who like his father has an incredibly high skill level, soft touch and an advanced feel for the game. Many who scout Europe feel that he is the best Euro prospect for his age group (players with a 1996 birthdate) and given the film that I have been able to evaluate, I can understand why people make that statement.

The reason that I'm writing about him today is that the word had been that Sabonis would announce over the weekend whether or not he would like to start getting paid for his play in Europe or come to the United States to play college ball. But, as of this column Sabonis hasn't announced his final decision.

Having preserved eligibility up to this point by declining to be paid, Sabonis could be an impact recruit and would spark an intense recruiting battle. But that's not going to happen. Gonzaga has been highly proactive in the recruitment of the European star, and if Sabonis does decide to play in the States, he will almost assuredly be doing so in Spokane for Mark Few.

While his official announcement has been delayed, behind-the-scenes talk points to him ultimately ending up in a Gonzaga uniform.

Pflueger gets defensive

For much of his career, class of 2015 four-star shooting guard Rex Pflueger has been known as an outstanding scorer. Standing 6-foot-4, perhaps even pushing 6-foot-5, he has prototypical two-guard size, a long frame, a nice looking shot and great length. As a junior at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, though, Pflueger hasn't really stood out for his offense.

Playing alongside 2014's No. 3 player -- and one of high school basketball's true alpha dogs -- Stanley Johnson, Pflueger has certainly had his moments offensively. However, where Pfluger has really stood out is on the defensive end. He routinely draws his opponent's best scorer and he has routinely proven that he can shut him down. I saw it again for myself Friday night when he harassed San Diego State-bound Rivals150 shooting guard Trey Kell into a tough night.

What makes Pflueger such a good defender is really a combination of many things. He moves very well laterally, he has a long reach and most of all he seems to really accept the challenge of being a defensive stopper. From what I have seen, he is one of the top perimeter defenders in the class of 2015, and that only cements his status as a high-major prospect.

Seeing without seeing

Every now and then, something happens that allows me to look at a player in an entirely new way. That happened over the weekend when I watched Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola make a huge comeback to move into the quarterfinals of the CIF Division I state playoffs. The Cubs did so without Arizona-bound Parker Jackson-Cartwright after the point guard who ranks No. 57 in the class of 2014 was dismissed from Loyola earlier this season .

I'm not going to get into what Jackson-Cartwright did or didn't do to get dismissed other than to say that by all accounts it was a non-legal mistake that he has obviously paid a heavy price for. Having watched him over the years, spoken to people who know him and reflected on things that I did as a 17-year old that could have gotten me into hot water, I don't have any more worry about him getting into trouble as a college player than I do any other prospect. As far as I'm concerned, it is a non-issue.

But that's not what I want to talk about anyway. I want to talk about how by not seeing him lead the Loyola offense I was able to see him an in entirely different light. Rivals150 junior Max Hazzard deserves a ton of credit for sliding over to the point guard spot and leading Loyola to wins. He's done an exceptional job. However, it is impossible to watch them play and not see how much they miss PJC running the show. Loyola didn't look nearly as cohesive as they did when I saw them in December with PJC running the show and they were clearly missing his vocal leadership as much as they were his playmaking.

There are still legitimate questions about how well PJC's 5-foot-9, 150-ish pound frame will hold up to the rigors of Pac-12 basketball. But there can't be any questions about his skill level and ability to lead a team. I'm not entirely sure yet what that means for him in terms of the final 2014 Rivals150, I just know that by not seeing Parker Jackson-Cartwright play I gained an entirely new appreciation of his game.

Smith could end up a nice pickup

Lost amidst the rush of Nebraska making the NCAA Tournament is the fact the Huskers landed themselves a nice prospect on the recruiting trail. Tim Miles and company picked up a nice St. Patrick's Day score when they landed one of the top remaining point guard prospects in the country, Tarin Smith.

A product of legendary Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony, Smith is a 6-foot-1 competitor who can run the show or play the role of scorer. Most importantly, he fits the culture that Miles and his staff have been building at Nebraska. Smith is a grinder, a tough kid who plays with physicality and who doesn't have a lot of notoriety. Molded by arguably the best high school coach of all time, Bob Hurley, at St. Ant's, Smith is a winner who is about team. Look for him to really help the Huskers depth on the perimeter, play good defense and provide offense in spots during his first couple of years. Don't be surprised if he ends up starting at least two years before his time in Lincoln is done.

Eric Bossi is the national basketball recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. You can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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