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|Tigers Headed To Indiana As A One Seed|
Despite a loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament
semi-finals, Auburn's 27-3 record, 14-2 conference mark and the regular
season SEC title proved to be enough to earn the Tigers an historic number
one seeding for the men's basketball team.
Seeded number one in the South Region, Auburn is being sent to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Ind., where on Thursday the Tigers will play Winthrop, the surprise champion of the Big South Conference. Although Winthrop is a heavy underdog as a 16th-seed, it is a team on a roll, having won 15 of its last 16 games to finish at 21-7.
Tickets to the Thursday-Saturday sessions are $84 for lower level seats in the dome that is configured to hold 37,900 fans for basketball. There are approximately 20,000 lower level seats. The upper level seats go for $72 per book. Tickets can be purchased by calling 317-262-3389. AU's first round allotment of tickets is gone.
Auburn has an all-time 7-5 record in NCAA Tournament play. Prior to this year, AU's highest NCAA seed was at number five in 1984 when the Charles Barkley led Tigers were upset in the opening round 72-71 by the Richmond Spiders.
Coach Cliff Ellis, who was interviewed live on the ESPN selection Sunday show, said later that he was "surprised" that his Tigers are headed to Indianapolis and not Orlando, the other first round site for the South Region. "My guess was that we were going to Orlando, but I missed it," he says.
In Indianapolis, eighth-seeded Syracuse of the Big East Conference will play ninth-seeded Oklahoma State of the Big 12. The winner of that game will play the winner of the Auburn vs. Winthrop game on Saturday. The other side of the bracket features fifth-seeded UCLA vs. 12th-seed Detroit and fourth-seed Ohio State vs. Murray State, which is coached by former Auburn assistant Tevester Anderson.
ACC champion Duke, the nation's top-ranked team, is the number one seed in the East. Michigan State, the champion of the Big 10, is the number one seed in the Midwest while Big East champ Connecticut is crossing the country as the top seed in the West. Auburn could have dropped to a number two seed with its loss to Kentucky, which went on to capture the SEC Tournament with a win over Arkansas. However, Maryland and Stanford, two other potential one seeds, also lost on Saturday.
Ellis said the best news he heard about the tournament pairings is that the Tigers are not in the same region with Duke, which has been called one of the best teams in college hoops history. Ellis said Sunday night, "This is a great day for Auburn basketball. This is an experience our players will remember for a lifetime."
The players seemed to be loose on Sunday talking about the tournament and their lack of experience in it. Doc Robinson and Bryant Smith said the Tigers have had to prove they belonged among the nation's elite all season and that is what they hope to do again starting on Thursday. Smith predicts that the Tigers will not overlook Winthrop despite being a heavy favorite. "The good thing about this team is that it keeps everything in perspective," he says.
Ellis says he plans to keep preaching to his team to have fun and enjoy the ride. "These are 18 to 22 year old kids and too much pressure is put on kids. I have seen adults who are millionaires fold on the 18th green over a soda. I learned a long time ago, if you get them to play with that philosophy you will have better results. Being a number one seed is amazing for Auburn, but what that does is make a lot of people put a lot of expectations on this basketball team. Yet to me, it is a reward saying to you, 'You have had one heck of a year, buddy. You are the Cinderella story.' Anything can happen, but those expectations will be there and I have to try to remove that."
Winthrop is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. First year coach Gregg Marshal was named the Big South Coach of the Year. Like Auburn, which won 17 straight games, Winthrop got on a hot streak and won a dozen games from Jan. 9th to Feb. 12th.
Marshall, who trained under respected coach John Kress at the College of Charleston, has built a team that won with defense. He took a team that won just seven games the previous season and led it to the school's first ever conference basketball title. Winthrop allowed teams to score just 64.1 points per game and hit just 42.8 percent of their shots. Offensively, the team averages 69 points and is hitting 43.8 percent from the field and 35.1 from three-point range, making 190-542 attempts. Winthrop averages 35.5 rebounds, 2.5 more than its opponents.
Auburn is averaging 80.6 points and giving up 65.8 per game. The Tigers allow opponents to hit 41.7 percent of their shots while AU makes 42.3 of its field goal attempts. Auburn has tried 349 treys and has made 119, which is a 34.1 percent average. AU is averaging 42 rebounds per game at a plus 6.4 rebound margin over opponents.
Winthrop played Auburn two years ago and Ellis says he remembers Tyson Waterman, a 6-0, 185 junior guard, who is averaging 11.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Auburn won that game 80-55, however, Winthrop has totally changed its style of play and much of its personnel. Waterman scored 14 points in that game. Derek Caldwell led AU with 15, Bryant Smith scored 14 and Doc Robinson and Wes Flanigan had nine apiece.
The leading scorer for Winthrop is Jeson Groves, a 6-7, 210-pound forward who averages 12.3 points per game. Auburn should have a height advantage. Groves is the tallest starter and center Eric Fisher and the other forward, Jacques Vandescure, are both 6-6. Of the top five reserves, only freshman backup center Eyo Effiong, at 6-9, is taller than 6-5. He averages 4.1 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Ellis says he has respect for a team that went to Minnesota and played the Golden Gophers tough before losing 68-59. The only common opponent is Central Florida, which beat Winthrop 79-57 back on Dec. 1st. Auburn beat Central Florida 77-42 on Nov. 19th.
Auburn is catching a team on a roll. Winthrop has won 14 of its last 15 games with the only setback in that stretch a 57-53 loss at Radford. Against bigger name opponents, Winthrop lost 81-51 at North Carolina State and 62-55 to North Carolina State.
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