- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Bruce Pearl has revamped Auburn’s roster and led the Tigers on a five-game winning streak.

The Tigers will get a much clearer idea this week of where they stand after Pearl’s hasty rebuilding efforts. Auburn (8-5) opens Southeastern Conference play Tuesday night at Vanderbilt (10-3) with a lot of history to overcome, then hosts Missouri on Saturday.

The Tigers have lost the last 14 times they opened SEC play on the road and have dropped nine in a row against the Commodores. They’ve also had losing records in league games each of the last five seasons, going 24-60 during that stretch of woe.

“We’re just trying to work our way off the bottom,” Pearl said Monday. “I want to try to instill in my team a desire to continue to try to earn respect.

“You’ve got to do it before you can have it, and we don’t have it and we don’t deserve it. We haven’t earned it yet. But the opportunities are there.”

Auburn hasn’t won six games in a row since winning seven straight nonconference games in 2008-09.

The biggest victories during the current stretch came over Middle Tennessee and in double overtime against Xavier.

The Tigers don’t have a good recent track record in league games, but Pearl’s SEC winning percentage (67.7) trails only Kentucky’s John Calipari (76.2) among active coaches.

The former Tennessee coach replaced the fired Tony Barbee in March and inherited a roster with few established, SEC-caliber players. Guard KT Harrell understands that a few nonconference wins won’t be enough to change perception.

“Nobody expects us to win or be good in the SEC, and we know that,” the Tigers’ leading scorer said. “But if you try to focus on trying to proving people wrong, you’ll be losing sleep all hours of the night and not be able to focus on the task at hand. We’ve just got to focus on us and getting better and just being prepared.”

Harrell and guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who’s been nursing a shoulder injury, are among the key Auburn players who have been through an SEC slate. Pearl had to remake the roster in a hurry, relying heavily on transfers Antoine Mason (Niagara), Cinmeon Bowers (junior college) and K.C. Ross-Miller (New Mexico State).

They’ve all had huge impacts. Mason missed the early part of the season with an ankle injury sustained in the opener but is averaging 15.4 points. Bowers is averaging 13.7 points while leading the league and ranking fifth nationally with 11.3 rebounds per game. Ross-Miller leads the team in assists.

Freshman Trayvon Reed, a 7-foot-2 center, also joined the team in December.

Pearl wasn’t allowed to recruit personally until August because of NCAA penalties stemming from his Tennessee tenure, making the short-term rebuilding task even harder.

Without the late additions, his debut team clearly could have been much worse. Pearl said shoring up Auburn’s roster “was probably as big a challenge as anything I faced.”

“I’m very proud of my assistant coaches and what we’ve been able to do to put together a roster on real short notice that is at least not getting overwhelmed,” he said. “This could have been a disastrous season. We’re fighting really hard so that it won’t be. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jzenor

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