When Bruce Pearl arrived at Auburn before the 2014-15 season, there was hope on the Plains that he could be poised to turn the Tigers' fortunes around.
Three seasons later there hasn't been a real breakthrough, but if you're an optimist then there have been some encouraging signs.
Last year Auburn had a winning record (18-14, 7-11 SEC) overall for the first time under Pearl. In fact, unbelievably, it was the first winning record for any Auburn basketball team since Jeff Lebo's second to last team in 2008-2009. This is a basketball program that has not competed in the NCAA tournament since 2003, coming up on 15 years, and they have only eight Big Dance appearances in program history.
So it would seem that there was progress.
Then again, has Auburn been upstaged by in-state Iron Bowl rival Alabama and Avery Johnson? He arrived one year later than Pearl but his third team is the object of a lot more anticipation than this year's Auburn team.
It's one thing to go from sub-.500 to the right side of the ledger. That's progress. But coaches don't survive and thrive by simply winning more games than they lose. Pearl needs a breakthrough, and he believes it's coming.
"For the first time since I've been at Auburn we've got a large portion of our team returning. About 70-percent," Pearl told reporters this week. "We've had to rebuild the roster every year except this year. I'm excited about the progress we've made. I'm excited about the lessons we've learned. We know the league is continuing to get better and better and we'd like to think that we're a part of that."
It seems like Auburn is getting better, so they might be part of an SEC basketball renaissance, but Tiger fans just have to hope that their improvement is about more than raising the bottom of the league. They want to climb the ladder.
That won't be easy with Kentucky, Florida, Alabama and Missouri the likely favorites to compete for a conference championship.
Pearl hopes that a preseason trip to Italy for exhibition basketball will help.
If Auburn is to overperform and take another step forward, perhaps pushing for a .500 league mark, they'll need sophomore center Austin Wiley to continue with his development. Wiley arrived at Auburn late last year and didn't have much practice time with the team, but for the season he averaged nearly double-digits in scoring.
John Calipari will become very familiar with Wiley, because the second-year Auburn player was selected to be part of Team USA's U19 roster.
"Austin was the most physical player at the U19 trials," Pearl told media this week. "I think that and the fact that his motor always runs were two things that jumped out at Coach Calipari and that coaching staff. I think that the adjustments that Austin would have made from last year to this year ... he is much quicker, much more explosive. He's always been fast but now he's utilizing that speed to his advantage."
Pearl pointed out that last year, when Wiley was a late-arriving 17-year old, he couldn't really showcase his strength in context in the SEC, against much older players. But at the USA U19 trials, against players his own age, Wiley was able to show just how physically impressive he is.
Wiley was one of five players who entered Pearl's program last year.
However important Wiley is, and he certainly is important to next year's Auburn team, no player will have more to say about the Tigers' success in Pearl's fourth year as second-year scorer Mustapha Heron, who poured in 15.2 points per game and could be in line for a first round draft pick in 2018.
As a redshirt freshman last season Danjel Purifoy was the team's second-leading scorer (11.5 PPG), and another one of last year's freshmen, Jared Harper, averaged roughly the same in points and posted a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
Auburn doesn't bring in the same kind of talent that will arrive in Lexington, Columbia or Tuscaloosa, but they return enough that Pearl can realistically hope for continued improvement on the Plains.