Upon Further Review: Down Goes Kansas, UNC Up Next
Auburn's Bryce Brown goes up for a layup in NCAA Tournament game against Kansas. (photo; USA TODAY Sports)
The rest of the country may have gnashed their teeth when Auburn ran the Kansas Jayhawks out of the building and the casual better may have muttered expletives, but Auburn fans weren’t surprised. Auburn sent a message to the rest of the country or at least to those outside of the SEC.
The Tigers are the hottest team in college basketball, and they showed it when they raced out of the gate, thanks to hitting six-of-eight from beyond the arc to start the game. Kansas led the game for mere seconds after hitting the first basket of the game, but Auburn manhandled the physical-looking Jayhawks by doing what it does best, getting another big game from Bryce Brown and a 13–30 team effort from downtown.
Auburn led by 26 at the half. While the Jayhawks steadily cut into the lead, the game was never in doubt on the way to an 89–74 route that sent Kansas packing. The 43-percent shooting was good, but across the board, the Tigers weren’t exactly terrific. The difference was Brown’s powerful effort as he was 7–11 on the night.
Outside of Anfernee McLemore’s one-for-two effort and Chuma Okeke’s perfect two-for two performance, no other Auburn player shot particularly well from long range. Still, transition threes and Auburn’s speed was beyond anything Kansas’ Coach Self had seen, and he said as much in his post-game conference.
Auburn’s diminutive point man, Jared Harper, quietly had a terrific performance as he slashed his way to the hoop for 18 points. He didn’t need a big night from deep for he did it the hard way: driving the lane, dishing the rock for six assists and going a perfect four-for-four at the charity stripe. More importantly, he had just two turnovers in a blowout win, turnovers being something that have stung Auburn at times.
Perhaps the most important thing that Harper accomplished, something that killed Auburn in the postseason last year, is that he stayed out of early foul trouble. Harper has a huge heart, needed for a small point guard in a game dominated by big men. That heart and passion caused him to foul early and often in many tournament games. He stayed on the floor for a team-high 35 minutes to lead the Tigers to a huge statement win where even alk-on Cole Blackstock saw floor time against a blue-blood team at the Big Dance.
Auburn is still doing it without Austin Wiley, who saw the most minutes since January, logging 13 minutes of playing time while scoring six points. It was his most efficient performance since his leg injury as he scored six points, his most since a loss to Ole Miss.
Auburn is going to need all hands on deck against North Carolina, the number one seed in this side of the bracket, come Friday night. There isn’t an Auburn fan that doesn’t wonder about Wiley’s use. Sure, he’s been injured, but everyone wants to see him become the player he was recruited to be. Auburn fans can’t help but wonder if coach Bruce Pearl is simply playing the long game, waiting to spring the former five star against five-star talent. That chance is here against UNC.
UNC is a five-point favorite against Auburn, a modest line. Truth be told, both teams want to play in a similar fashion, and both want to play fast. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives the Tar heels a 66-percent chance to move to the Elite Eight. Auburn is on a 10-game winning streak while UNC is coming off of a loss in the ACC tournament but haves won its two games in March Madness.
The ‘Heels have a significant advantage in scoring differential, but when it comes to playing fast, Auburn has a solid edge on turnovers and blocks. Auburn can hang with anyone when it hit its shots, especially in transition.
The season has been a complete success, no matter what happens, and Auburn faced its letdown game against New Mexico State. This will be the the fourth blueblood team Auburn has played this year and quite possibly the most definitive one, The Tigers posted a one-and-three record, beating only Kansas, which is having a down year. Auburn played Duke as well as anyone, but Kentucky caught the Tigers at tough times in both their meetings. This is the chance for the Tigers to establish themselves among the elite. Auburn looks to do just that this Friday night at 6:30 CT on TBS.