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Houston’s Jarace Walker was a top Auburn target. Now he’s a ‘nightmare matchup’ for the Tigers 3/18/2023 Tom Green,

Bruce Pearl has Auburn at a place few thought was manageable a decade ago.

In nine years on the Plains, Pearl has elevated Auburn to the national stage, both on the court and in recruiting. The Tigers are in the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in as many postseason trips over the last six seasons, and Pearl has the program competing for — if not always signing — some of the nation’s top prospects.

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The Tigers landed two top-40 recruits in the 2022 class (five-star combo forward Yohan Traore and four-star wing/guard Chance Westry), while their other signee (three-star point guard Tre Donaldson) is coming off a pivotal performance off the bench in Auburn’s opening-round win against Iowa, when he scored 11 points and went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. For as successful as Pearl and his staff have been on the recruiting trail, there are still the ones that get away.

“I don’t know what kind of an elite recruiter I am,” Pearl said. “I finished second on a bunch of the guys in this tournament. I finished second more than I finished first, so I don’t think that makes me that good of a recruiter.”

Auburn will see meet one of those players Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against top-seeded Houston. The Tigers were one of three finalists for big man Jarace Walker, a five-star power forward and top-11 player in the 2022 class, who chose the Cougars over Pearl’s program and another team playing in Birmingham this week: Alabama.

Auburn’s staff offered Walker a scholarship in the summer of 2020, and the 6-foot-8 big man who starred at IMG Academy in Florida took a pair of visits to campus, including an official visit before his senior year. The Tigers “worked really hard” to land Walker in the class and were in the thick of his recruitment, but he ultimately committed to the Cougars and coach Kelvin Sampson, who were fresh off a Final Four run in 2021.

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According to Sampson, the deciding factor for Walker was his father, Horace, whom he added “liked Bruce a lot.” Pearl and Auburn’s other assistant coaches still keep in touch with Walker’s family, even sending his parents texts on their birthdays.

“I definitely remember the whole process,” Walker said. “(Pearl) is a great guy. It’s a great program over there, but I felt like this was home, and I feel like I made the right decision, although they definitely have a lot of good things going over there. I definitely respect him and the program a ton.”

It was a major recruiting win for Sampson, as he landed the highest-rated commit in program history. And while he edged out Pearl for Walker’s services, Sampson didn’t view it as quite a head-to-head battle between the two veteran coaches.

“We don’t really recruit against another school or another coach,” Sampson said. “You know, we try the best we can to sell them on our program. I forbid my assistant coaches from being negative about other schools because I know what that’s like. If we’re not good enough to get a kid based on our school versus running another school down, not interested. We sell Houston. As far as recruiting against another school — I know Bruce, and they would have told me — he was always positive about us in recruiting Jarace, and we were very positive about them.

“So, I don’t get into the negativity thing or running people down. Maybe it’s my experience and age. I don’t know. But a kid wants to come to Houston, we’ll take him, but we’re not going to go do ignorant stuff to do it.”

The decision has paid off for Walker, who has been one of the top freshmen in the country this season. He’s Houston’s second-leading scorer, averaging 11.2 points per game while grabbing 6.6 boards a night along with one steal and one block. He’s a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, and he’s a big reason why Houston earned the No. 2 overall seed in this year’s tournament. Walker led the team with 16 points in its opening-round win against 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky, when star guard Marcus Sasser left the game early with a groin injury.

It’s easy to see what Pearl and his staff saw in the big man, who the Tigers are now meeting at Legacy Arena with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.

“I saw the same things Kelvin saw, except he did a better job of recruiting him,” Pearl said. “… Jarace is a nightmare matchup. You know, he is powerful, quick, skilled, great IQ, great motor. You know, 6-8 in frame, but arms that make him 6-11. Got great upside.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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