Picking Auburn To Advance To the Elite Eight
Bruce Pearl has Auburn basketball believing. (photo AP/Rick Bowmer)
What a whirlwind it’s been for Auburn basketball over the last month. Winners of their last 10 games, the Tigers amazed everyone by blowing through the SEC Tournament to win the league championship and are now poised to play in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Beating blue blood Kansas 89–75 in the second round was sweet in itself. And the score was not indicative of just how dominant the Tigers were in dismantling the proud Jayhawks.
Kansas coach Bill Self said; “[Auburn] was fantastic. We hadn’t seen an onslaught like that all year … I was surprised how great they were, even though I knew they were good.” Leading 51–25 at the half, the Tigers could well have scored over 100, but Auburn coach Bruce Pearl decided to slow the game down and coast to a win.
No question the Tigers caught fire at the most opportune time. But what has been the catalyst? Some would point to an offensive surge. With an MO of being a heavy 3-point shooting team, Auburn is the sixth-most efficient offense in the nation and has averaged making thirteen 3-pointers in the last seven games while committing 10 or less turnovers during that span.
Senior Bryce Brown hit 7 of 11 against Kansas and is now the SEC’s second-best 3-point shooter in history. But it goes further than that. With point guard Jared Harper masterfully running the offense, Austin Wiley finally healthy, and the bench making important contributions, this team has gelled at exactly the right time.
Yet, for all that offensive prowess, the major difference from Auburn in the postseason and Auburn in the midseason has been defense. Auburn is No. 1 in the nation in forcing turnovers, stealing 25.2 percent of its opponents’ possessions. The Tigers forced 17 turnovers against Kansas—an uncharacteristic stat for the Jayhawks. In addition, the Tigers are ranked second in steal percentage (13.4) and fifth in block percentage (15.6).
But now they have to face the team Bruce Pearl has called “a blue blood on steroids.” North Carolina (29–6), is truly one of the most storied programs in NCAA history. The Tar Heels have the second best all-time winning percentage and have won seven national championships, third-most all time, trailing only Kentucky and UCLA.
Auburn (28–9) enters Friday night’s contest as one of the hottest teams in the country. One of only four teams with an undefeated record in March, the Tigers have racked up three victories against ranked opponents along with an SEC Championship. Most importantly Pearl’s Tigers are playing with a contagious confidence.
Could all that be enough to beat perennial blue blood and No. 1 seed North Carolina? Some think not with Vegas having already installed Auburn as the underdog. But the same was true when the Tigers faced Tennessee in what amounted to a road game in the SEC Championship finals. And look how that turned out.
So if you’ve read this far and haven’t figured it out yet, this Auburn fan is all in, or maybe I’m just crazy. Either way I’m picking Auburn to advance to the Elite Eight. Prediction: Tigers 88, Tar Heels 84!
Apologies for my absence the last 10 days. I had looked forward to covering Auburn basketball in the post season but sometimes life has a way of changing our plans. We had some serious health issues in our family requiring us to be on the road, but things are looking up now and we should be back now with more Auburn coverage.